The Man Who Turned into a Stick
is a short one-act play published in 1957 by Japanese writer and inventor Kōbō Abe. It is the first play in a trilogy that Abe intended as an allegory for conception, life, and death. While The Man Who Turned into a Stick
is said to represent death, The Suitcase
and The Cliff of Time
are said to represent conception and life, respectively. Together with its sequels, the play, one of Abe’s foremost works, transformed the genre of magical realism
in the Japanese literary canon.The Man Who Turned into a Stick
is set entirely on a busy street beside a department store, sometime in midsummer. At the beginning, two characters, Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl, loiter outside the store, sniffing glue. Their bumbling is interrupted when a stick falls from the sky. The stick is played by an actor, who also represents the man who was turned into the stick. The cast is then joined by Man from Hell and Woman from Hell. Hippie Boy marvels at how he almost was struck by the falling stick. Man from Hell and Woman from Hell attribute his luck to fate, while Hippie Girl puts a more neutral, Buddhist spin on the phenomenon. Hippie Boy takes the stick and starts to drum a beat. Hippie Girl then notices a young boy on the roof and assumes that he threw the stick at them. Stick speaks to the child, revealing himself as his father.
Man from Hell and Woman from Hell interrogate Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl about the origin and nature of the stick, doubting that they found it so innocently. The hippies ask the people from Hell whether they are police officers. They reply that they are not, and then ask them to hand over the stick. Hippie Boy, suspecting that the man and woman are lying, accuses them of throwing the stick and orchestrating a cover-up. The man and woman reassert that the stick is a person who transformed before falling from the roof; they ask the kids to understand them. Hippie Boy and Hippie Girl reply that they understand little because their age difference from the man and woman divides their perceptions of reality. Hippie Girl notes that she and Hippie Boy are, therefore, “alienated.”
The man who transformed into a stick laments that it is so. The Man and Woman from Hell and the Hippies debate the meaning of life. Man from Hell asks what Hippie Boy thinks he will do with the stick; Hippie Boy replies that the very question does not interest him because it is a relic of the past. Man from Hell uses this logic against Hippie Boy, arguing that if it is so, he has no reason to withhold the stick. Hippie Boy does not concede, frustrating the Man from Hell. He proclaims that to want something, with the knowledge that it is insubstantial or meaningless, is “bad for your health.” The Hippies refuse money for the stick and go on several digressions.
Then Woman from Hell announces that the boy from the roof is coming; he has alerted the store employees about his father’s plight to no avail. The stick speaks again, asking why fate made him turn into a stick. Hippie Boy drops the stick in fright, remarking that it looks uncannily similar to him. He agrees to give the Man from Hell the stick for five dollars. Before he walks offstage, he adds that he only sold it because he didn’t want to sell it, setting up a “contradiction of circumstances.” Hippie Girl adds, supportively, that such is the “generation gap.”
Having obtained the stick, the Man and Woman from Hell deliberate about how they will conduct their investigation of the man it once was. They contact Hell to debrief. Woman from Hell expresses sympathy for the stick and is scolded by the man. They digress into another discussion on the nature of the stick. The man calls the stick the “root and source of all tools,” making it faithful and capable. The woman remarks that she has never before seen a man in the form of a stick; the man responds that it is because they are so ubiquitous that they are routinely skipped over by those of their profession.
Man from Hell tells Woman from Hell to throw away the stick, but she hesitates, wondering aloud whether it retains feelings. She suggests they give the stick to the boy so he can grieve appropriately. The man replies that the boy and father are content as it is, otherwise, the father would never have transformed. The two people from Hell walk off the stage to find another person who has turned into a stick. Stick then delivers a monologue, calling into doubt their proclamations that he was content. Man from Hell breaks the fourth wall, noting that the whole audience is full of sticks. Woman from Hell tries to comfort Stick that he is not alone in his condition. Nevertheless, the play ends with the stick’s predicament unresolved and the man and woman departing to mechanically repeat their roles.