Absurdism through the Arts from Franz Kafka to Junji Ito

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

The fundamental aspect of absurdist philosophy is that life possesses no inherent meaning and that we as human beings are at odds with the universe for trying to find one, yet we should be liberated by this fact and choose to rebel against this “absurd” nature and try to find meaning nonetheless, in order to live a life that is veracious.

Absurdism within the literary and visual art form explores this basis of discordance by utilising themes that are overly peculiar and lack a definite meaning. You may propose it is similar to the universe having no true meaning yet if there were a real meaning, we as humans will never know it.

Franz Kafka, a notable author of the 20th century wrote stories that fit into this absurdist mould with one of his most acclaimed pieces being “Metamorphosis.” A short tale of a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a “monstrous verminous bug” seemingly for no apparent reason or justification.

He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections… His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa tries to continue with his life, even attempting to go to work immediately after waking up in his new state—he fails to proceed with this task. Kafka’s Metamorphosis story ends with Samsa dying as a bug and his family commencing onwards in life without him. There seems to be no agreed moral to Kafka’s story at least to my reading and knowledge of the text, it is more so foreboding than anything. One interpreted meaning to the text is that Samsa lived a mundane existence and had no individual purpose, he lived to support his parents and sister and failed to build lasting relationships outside his work and family life, hence why his mother and father were able to move past his death quite quickly and look towards his younger sister’s budding future. Gregor Samsa turned into a bug for no apparent reason and despite this, his main concern was going to work to support his family; perhaps he should have forged his own personable existence in this absurd universe and rebel against the tedious responsibilities his parents thrust upon him. Conversely, it may be reasonable to conclude that we as readers and/or scholars are looking too deep into the meaning behind Kafka’s work, perhaps that’s where the absurdity lies, in the fact that there is no significance behind Samsa’s metamorphosis, that we too are being futile by even trying to form meaning out of Kafka’s fictional narrative, are we defying the lack of meaning by adding our own, much like the absurdists?

Kafkaesque refers to a creative work that incorporates terrifyingly implausible and inherently illogical situations, especially when the characters seem in conflict with their own narrative, quite like a man being transformed into a bug with no explanation and wanting nothing more than to go on with his daily work routine. In addition, another example would be Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” where a man, Josef K. is taken into custody on his thirtieth birthday with no justification and when he enquires the reason for his arrest, no authoritative figure, not even the judge provides a response.

Junji Ito is a writer and illustrator of manga (comic/graphic novel). Ito is known for his absurdist horror stories including his most commended work the “Uzumaki.” A town is tyrannized by an unusual culprit, the spiral pattern.

I find the spiral to be very mystical. It fills me with a deep fascination… Like nothing else in nature… No other shape…

Junji Ito, Uzumaki
Junji Ito, Uzumaki

A bizarre concept to say the least. A string of narratives unfolds in the town Kurouzu-cho, which usually involves the protagonist Kirie Goshima. The first instance of this spiral mayhem centres around her boyfriend’s father who becomes obsessed with “the art of the spiral” which escalates to him performing martyrdom by turning his body into a spiral by encasing it (as illustrated above). This spiral obsession takes the town by storm (literally) from spiral storms to people turning into giant snails. Kurouzu-cho is completely obliterated by the end with most of the residents merged inside each other. Kirie Goshima and her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito concede defeat by the end of the manga with both of their families being dead in consequence of the spiral curse.

In a similar vein to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, there is a lack of moral or meaning behind Ito’s Uzumaki, we do not know why the town was tormented by the spiral pattern in the first place, comparable to Gregor Samsa’s dilemma of his new bug state. We see that there is a lot of artistic and story potential with the spiral pattern, evidently with the anatomical horror of Saito’s mother mutilating herself upon finding out that the spiral pattern was in her ear canal; how some people transformed into life-size snails which caused those who still remained human to feast upon these snails once the town had run low on food. Junji Ito employs a sense of absurdism in this narrative with the extremities of survival, one would assume that after the first few instances of the spiral chaos, the townsfolk would leave Kurouzu-cho in a hurry, yet despite the alarming encounters Kirie Goshima and her family endure, they decide to linger, much to their own demise. Goshima and Saito like Samsa, succumb to death which is a theme present in a lot of absurdist works like Kafka’s “The Trial” and “The Hunger Artist”, all the protagonists die. Albert Camus, a founding father of absurdism states:

It is essential to die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will… The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

The demise of the protagonists in both Kafka and Ito’s work reach this conclusion with them dying in their absurdist conditions with no themes of hope. Their deaths serve the purpose of displaying the “bitter end” (death), the final destination of this planet’s purposeless and absurdity.

To conclude, whether we agree with the absurdist outlook on life we cannot deny that various media that include these thought-provoking philosophies like absurdism, existentialism, and nihilism are indeed the creative works that stand the test of time and continue to inspire new creatives and thinkers. It is fair to say that we human beings are cognizant of our abilities to theorize about existential matters whilst other animals may not (who knows), and that these questions will proceed to ponder collective human thought which results in more philosophical creative media as these questions seemingly have no unanimously agreed-upon answers. I.e. I eagerly await the next pivotal creative piece that will inevitably be created, at least I hope.

All images and media belong to respective owners, Hyper Enigma does not own or claim any images used.

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One thought on “Absurdism through the Arts from Franz Kafka to Junji Ito

  1. Very insightful piece, lovely to see a post linking Camus philosophy of absurdism with Kafka’s works. Uzumaki seems like such an interesting work, definitely persuaded to look into it!

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