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A Sublime, Collective Vision of Violence

Yes, Oe is indeed representative [“of a dying literary tradition, a tradition which was unique to the set of circumstances that produced the society of immediate postwar Japan”]—if not in style then certainly in thematic obsessions of postwar literature. Oe shares with these writers, but perhaps feels more intensely, a need for some form of transcendental spiritual experience, an experience which Oe himself terms the “sublime” and which he offers as a possible solution for some of the ills afflicting modern Japan. I would suggest, however, that this desire for the sublime is not restricted only to authors of Oe’s generation. A search for transcendental experience characterizes not only some of the best recent Japanese literature but can also be found in some of the most prominent products of popular culture, notably comic books (manga) and animation.


Confining ourselves to fiction, we can identify three major paradigms in which Oe seems to be locating the sublime. The first is a vision of violence, often of an apocalyptic type, sometimes linked with the Japanese emperor of with the Japanese past: a vision of wholesale destruction that both terrorizes and liberates his characters runs through a number of Oe’s novels. The second is Oe’s notion of a human collectivity tied to a natural setting. Often this sublime is a rural village located in a liminal space that may or may not be Oe’s own homeland of Shikoku and composed of marginals and outsiders such as Oe’s own mentally handicapped son, Hikari. These outsiders are engaged in a frequently carnivalesque confrontation with established authority. Although they often lose the fight, the process of violent confrontation itself seems to liberate them, thereby connecting this paradigm with that of the apocalyptic sublime. The third site of the sublime is the body, usually in its sexual aspect, but also in relation to violent action. Many of Oe’s characters engage in grotesque and sometimes violent sexual activity. As with the previous two paradigms, however, the very extremity of the process often coveys a form of freedom to the participants.

—Susan J. Napier, “Oe Kenzaburo and the Search for the Sublime at the End of the Twentieth Century”

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