Shōhei Ōoka : biography
Ōoka was born in Magome Ward of Tokyo (now part of Shinjuku, Tokyo). His parents were from Wakayama prefecture, and his father was a stockbroker and his mother was a geisha. Raised to study literature from early childhood, he mastered French while in high school. His parents also hired the famed literary critic Kobayashi Hideo to be his tutor. Under Kobayashi's instruction, be became acquainted with poet Nakahara Chūya, the critic Kawakami Tetsutaro, and other literary figures. He entered Kyoto Imperial University School of Literature in April 1929, graduating in March 1932.
After graduation, Ōoka became a journalist with the Kokumin Shimbun, a pro-government newspaper, but quit after one year to devote himself to the study and translate the works of the French writer, Stendhal, and other European writers into Japanese. To support himself, he found a job in 1938 with Teikoku Sansō, Franco-Japanese company based in Kobe as a translator. In June 1943, he left Teikoku Sansō, and in November of the same year obtained a position at Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
However, in 1944, Ōoka was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, given only three months of rudimentary training and sent to the front line at Mindoro Island in the Philippines, where he served as his battalion's communications technician until his battalion was routed and numerous men killed. In January 1945, he was captured by the American forces in the Philippine defeat and sent to a prisoner of war camp on Leyte Island. Survival was very traumatic for Ōoka, who was troubled that he, a middle-aged and unworthy soldier, had survived when so many others had not. He returned to Japan at the end of the year and lived at Akashi, Hyōgo.
It was not until his repatriation after the war's end that Ōoka began his career as a writer. On the recommendation of his mentor Hideo Kobayashi, he published an autobiographical short-story of his experiences as a prisoner of war entitled Furyoki ("Taken Captive: A Japanese POW's Story", 1948), in separate parts between 1948 and 1951. Its publication, along with winning the Yokomitsu Prize in 1949, encouraged him to take up writing as a career.
His next work, Musashino Fujin, ("A Wife in Musashino", 1950), is a psychological novel patterned after the works of Stendhal.
His best-known novel, Nobi (Fires on the Plain, 1951), was also well received by critics, and won the prestigious Yomiuri Literary Prize in 1951. Considered one of the most important novels of the postwar period and based loosely on his own wartime experiences in the Philippines, Nobi explores the meaning of human existence through the struggle for survival of men who are driven by starvation to cannibalism. It was subsequently made into a prize-winning film by Ichikawa Kon in 1959, although the film substantially changes the protagonist's relationship to the theme of cannibalism.
In 1958, Ōoka veered from his usual subjects and produced Kaei ("The Shade of Blossoms", 1958–1959), depicting an aging naive nightclub hostess’ struggle and ultimate demise from the destructive forces of desire and wealth in the decadent 1950s Ginza. The setting had changed but the recurring themes had not. His characters were still adrift and struggling for survival in an inhospitable jungle. Kaei won both the Mainichi Cultural Award and the Shichosha Prize in 1961.
Along with translations and fiction, Ōoka also devoted himself to writing the critical biographies of Nakahara Chuya (which won the Noma Prize) and Tominaga Taro. From 1953 to 1954, he was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Yale University. He was also a lecturer on French literature at Meiji University in Tokyo.
In the late 1960s, Ōoka revisited the subject of the Pacific War and the Japanese defeat in the Philippines to produce the detailed historical novel Reite senki ("A Record of the Battle of Leyte", 1971). He compiled and researched an enormous amount of information for three years in order to produce it. As with all his writing, it looks at war critically from the perspective of a person who, despite ethical reservations, was forced to serve. The novel won the Mainichi Art Award.
Ōoka became a member of the Japan Art Academy in November 1971. In January 1974, he published a biography on the poet, Nakahara Chūya, which won the Noma Literary Award. Ōoka was awarded the prestigious Asahi Prize in January 1976. He was awarded the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in March 1978.
Ōoka died in 1988 at the age of 79. His grave is at the Tama Cemetery in the outskirts of Tokyo. He was posthumously awarded the Yomiuri Literary Award in 1989 for a biography of Natsume Soseki.
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