Kobo Abe has no idea who picked him and his play for the $2-million, 10-city tour of art, film, theater and music called "Japan Today." But whoever it was, Abe theorizes that "they were deceived."
His work, he says through an interpreter, is "not suitable for 'Japan Today' program." It is "Japan Tomorrow," he adds with a modest grin.
Known for his novels about urban isolation - and internationally for "Woman in the Dunes" - Abe, 55, is Japan's best-selling serious novelist. A 15-volume anthology of his works, issued in 1972, has sold 750,000 copies.
He began writing plays in the 1960s, but it did not take him long to become "fed up with everything done in Japan regarding theater." A chain-smoker with a cheshire-cat smile, Abe started his own actor's company in 1973 because, he says, "The theater world today is based on the 19th century - on literature. I wanted to send messages which can be sent only from stage, not from other mediums."
The result, whatever one calls it, is a collage of dance, film, gymnastics, sculpture, ballooning and wrestling (among other possible analogues). In his recent productions, Abe has taken to draping a huge white sheet across the stage, and in "The Little Elephant Is Dead" his actors wear costumes so vast that when opened wide - flying-squirrel fashion-they can serve as screens for the English dialogue to be projected onto.
All this in not easy for Abe to commit to the printed page. "I don't think anyone else can direct my plays because I can't explain them in words to others," he says.
And even in Japan, Abe concedes, there are those who regard his company as a bit of a circus. "I myself think that my plays contains a deep message," he says. "But I don't expect audiences to think about that while they see my play. A long, long time after they see my play they might understand."
"The experiences which can be translated into meaning immediately are usually very shallow experiences," he says, throwing in a quick apology for the "arrogance" of that observation.
In any case, he adds, "I make the play rather appealing to the sensual aspects."
And the nature of the philosophy he expects to be festering in our subconscious long after the curtain has rung down? No comment, says Abe. When a Moscow magazine devoted a whole issue to a debate over one of his novels, he enjoyed both critics' positions equally.
"A writer should lose the ability to be critical," says Abe. "The less of a critic he is, the better writer he is."
Abe's wife interjects here that "he never says anything about his work. He's very famous for that."
A communist during the 1950s, Abe claims he has since "forgotten" about politics. He can't even remember when he did his forgetting, he says, and his wife adds, that it is the same with his books. "The moment he's finished writing a novel, he forgets what he's written," she says. (Alfred A. Knopf will publish his latest novel, "Secret Rendezvous," in the fall.)
"The Little Elephant Is Dead" comes here from a single packed performance at Washington University in St. Louis, and will be moving to New York's Cafe LaMama, where a five-performance run is said to be virtually sold out.
The Kennedy Center, however, seems somewhat baffled by the task of selling a week of Abe to its audience-and ticket sales have indeed been spotty.
Abe, when informed of this, groaned slightly and took two quick puffs on his cigarette. Not to worry, he told a Kennedy Center staffer. His own country has already shown enough indifference to his theatrical work, he said, that "I'm very used to despair." CAPTION: Picture, Kobo Abe