Columbia University PressKobo Abe’s “Beasts Head for Home,” translated by Richard F. Calichman, is a harrowing fictionalized account of a young Japanese man who journeys through the harsh wasteland of Manchuria to reach an ancestral homeland he has never seen.

Beasts Head for Home, by Kobo Abe, Translated by Richard F. Calichman.
224 pages

The story takes place two years after Japan’s surrender during World War II, and in the midst of China’s civil war. The protagonist, Kuki Kyuzo, escapes his hometown that has fallen under Soviet control and embarks on an agonizing trek through the wilderness. Along the way, he meets an enigmatic man whose name (at first Wang, then later Ko) and origins are as questionable as his character.

Kyuzo’s own identity and rootlessness are significant themes throughout the novel. His struggle to stay alive with his fickle companion forces him to wrestle with his perception of reality, and he realizes early on that he is a man without a family or a true home.

As he journeys further into unfamiliar terrain, his sense of memory and time disintegrates. He questions what it means to be Japanese, especially in a time of war when boundaries, real and perceived, are unreliable.

Abe’s novel is realistic, most likely drawing on the novelist’s personal experience of growing up in Manchuria. However, the abrupt shifts from Kyuzo’s perspective to other characters are disorienting at times. Kyuzo and Ko spend a majority of the story arguing and dragging each other forward, wracked with hunger and exhaustion. The literal beasts they encounter in the wild reflect their own natural, animalistic impulses.

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