It is 1948. Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War II, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated painter Masuji Ono fills his days attending to his garden, his house repairs, his two grown daughters and his grandson, and his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet Iantern-lit bars. His should be a tranquil retirement. But as his memories continually return to the past - to a life and a career deeply touched by the rise of Japanese militarism - a dark shadow begins to grow over his serenity.
The marriage negotiations for his younger daughter, Noriko, the year before, were unexpectedly and suddenly called to a halt and he was comfortably assured that the reason for the break was because the other family did not feel their son was sufficiently worthy to be tied to Ono's. However, his older daughter, Setsuko, gently hints that there may be other reasons for the break following the traditional investigations into families that take place during Japanese marriage negotiations. Upon reflection, he starts to wonder if his nationalistic duty as an artist creating military and patriotic art, which provided him with not just fame but respect and influence then, could perhaps now be negatively considered as fascism.
He starts to question his own memories of his youth and his actions in the name of imperialist support for Japan's war efforts.
This is a superbly beautiful work.
Ono provides the narrative, and while there's plenty of dialogue, a great deal is inside his head. Details drip out like water from a leaky faucet. He goes off on tangents, and sometimes references important events or conversations, but doesn't fill in the details until later. He often ends a long story by saying it may not have happened exactly as he remembered it. Kazuo Ishiguro uses Noriko and Setsuko to fill in the blanks through conversations with their father. And his portrayal of the Japanese father-daughter relationship is brilliant. When Ono's daughters challenge him, they do so in a very indirect way. They make suggestions instead of overt requests, even when the matter is of the utmost importance. As Noriko's marriage negotiations begin, Setsuko is clearly worried about something from their past, and wants Ono to clear things up with certain associates:
"I wonder how Mr Kuroda is these days. I can remember how he used to come here, and you would talk together for hours in the reception room."
"I've no idea about Kuroda these days."
"Forgive me, but I wonder if it may not be wise if Father were to visit Mr Kuroda soon."
"Mr. Kuroda. And perhaps certain other such acquaintances from the past."
"I'm not sure I follow what you're saying, Setsuko."
"Forgive me, I simply meant to suggest that Father may wish to speak to certain acquaintances from his past. That is to say, before the Saitos' detective does. After all, we do not wish any unnecessary misunderstandings to arise."
"No, I suppose we don't," I said, returning to my paper.
I believe we did not discuss the matter further after that. Neither did Setsuko raise it again for the remainder of her stay last month. (p. 85)
As Ono reminisces on his pre-war artistic career the reader comes to understand his daughters' concerns. But Ono is more savvy and self-aware than he lets on, and takes a personal risk at what he judges to be a critical point in the marriage negotiations.
This is one of Ishiguro's early novels, and its style is much like The Remains of the Day, which is one of my all-time favorite books. An Artist of the Floating World is nearly as great, and highly recommended.
An Artist of the Floating World is a beautifully written book with prose so subtle and delicate that is easy for the reader to lose track of the powerful themes it explores. Who bears the responsibility for the consequences of misplaced loyalty? Do sons and daughters inevitably pay for the past sins of their parents? How do we reconcile the internal conflict between the desire to pursue both pleasure and higher meaning in our lives? Ishiguro does a masterful job of addressing these issues while evoking the details of a long-forgotten era. While not as compelling as the author’s more celebrated The Remains of the Day, reading this novel was a highly satisfying experience nonetheless.
What follows is a very quiet, subtle story of family, art, friendship, tutors, and passion. It is told gently, mostly through conversation and recall. It's the kind of story that holds you in its murmurings, but doesn't quickly or overtly reveal what you more and more ache to know. The beauty of the way this story unfolds is its special charm and what has made it by far my favorite of the four books I've now read by this native Japanese, British author.
What I love about Ishiguro's writing style is how he gets inside his character's heads. You immediately become sympathetic to them and it's only as the books go on that you start to realize (often along with the narrators) that they may not be seeing things the way everyone else does. His narrators are proud men and their accomplishments are important to them.
In "An Artist of the Floating World", Masuji Ono wanted to be an artist since he was a boy despite his father's belittling of the profession. He becomes one of the successful artists of the floating world--"the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink"--of an unnamed city in Japan (Wikipedia says its Nagasaki--where Ishiguro was born). Eventually, Ono decides to leave the floating world and begins working for the Japanese government creating propaganda paintings in the lead-up to Japan's entry in the Second World War.
The book takes place in the late 1940s and early 1950s, after the "surrender", when public opinion has changed drastically about the wisdom of Japan's actions in the War. One of Ono's current worries is that he played such a vital role in pre-war Imperial Japan that he is jeopardizing his daughter's chances of finding a suitable marriage partner. His pride prevents him from seeing his role the way others do. As a colleague of his during those days says to him:
"Army officers, politicians, businessmen . . . They've all been blamed for what happened to this country. But as for the likes of us, Ono, our contribution was always marginal. No one cares now what the likes of you and me once did. They look at us and see only two old men with their sticks. . . . We're the only ones who care now. The likes of you and me, Ono, when we look back over our lives and see they were flawed, we're the only ones who care now."
This is a beautifully written, compelling story and I'm giving it 4 1/2 stars.
I recently finished a course on twentieth century Japan, and I have to say, Ishiguro has done an amazing job of capturing the atmosphere and character of the time. The protagonist is imperfect but endearing; I felt for him, and found myself missing the (inevitably destructive) ideals that he felt that Japan had lost. Other reviewers have expressed annoyance at the way the main character's daughters treat him--I'll second that, but with a note that the situation does closely echo that faced by many Japanese adults in the mid-twentieth century.
I want to recommend this to anyone interested in Japanese history, a different perspective on World War II and its cultural impact, or merely an engaging story told well.
This is an intimate portrayal of a relationship between a father and his daughters, highlighting the miscommunication that generational differences can cause. The unwritten suggestion is that Ono's relationship with his son would have been easier, had he survived the war and that his wife, had she too survived, would have placated his daughters. It is backed by a changing world where the alienation of the older generation is all the more acute as Japan progresses through not just modernisation but westernisation. There is an constant echo of the country's collective guilt over acts during the war years in Ono's personal guilt over his own past. It is clear that Ono's view of his own past and guilt is coloured by his present day feelings - the reader is left unsure whether Ono is giving an accurate representation of the opinions and actions of others or merely creating 'demons' from his personal view of his culpability.
This personal struggle for justification and absolution is set as a counterpoint to a sensitive portrayal of social relationships in Japan at the time. At all times, the distance between the old and the young is apparent; both socially as a result of the old social structures in Japan and in a temporal sense - the young being more forward and westward thinking, happy to devolve themselves from the Japan of the war years in the name of progress. There is also a sense of anger amongst the young about the lost generation of their peers who, like Ono's son, never survived the war.
This is a quiet work of brilliance. Ishiguro uses understated prose to convey atmosphere and skilfully draw the main characters. It has certainly moved me to read more of his work and so this is definitely to be recommended.
What makes An Artist of the Floating World different? Well, in this one the time and place is post-WWII Japan. The story centers on Ono, an imperialist who is trying to find his place in a Japan dominated by the politics and culture of its American occupiers. The story has obviously wonderful dynamics and Ishiguro's outsider status—he hadn't seen Japan since he was five years old—lends emotional strength and believability to the plight of Ono.
How does it compare to other works of Ishiguro's? This one falls right in the middle for me. It has a much more interesting and well-built story than the author's first and his most recent, A Pale View of the Hills and The Buried Giant respectively. Also, Ono's narrative is thoroughly engaging. The novel does not, however, have nearly the emotional weight that Ishiguro's two most famous novel have. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go both carry such an unexpected punch that I found it difficult to distance myself from them afterwards. Ono's unreliability is established so early and mentioned so frequently that I think it's hard for the reader to ever fall completely under his spell. In the end, you're not quite sure what the truth is. With Remains...'s Stevens and Never Let Me Go's Kathy, the truth was painfully clear to everyone but the narrators themselves. An Artist of the Floating World lacks this subtle brutality, but it is still a wonderful story that effectively addresses the changing views of Japanese art and culture during reconstruction.
The book moves back and forth amongst events - the way a mind will move from a memory to memory, and that particular effect is very interesting.
The writing is successful in transpiring the helplessness and guilt felt by a man in his sunset years and his struggle to own up and feel proud of his life's work again. The effect is both touching and striking.
Several tropes of Ishiguro's writing, including first-person point of view and an increasingly insular and unreliable narrator, take center stage here as the retired artist Masuji Ono tells the story of his somewhat stilted present while gesturing constantly towards a particular detrimental event in his past. The constant reference to "the past," without any specific point of entry, helps reinforce the metaphor of pre-World War II Japan as a different and indescribable thing, but also forces Ono, and the reader, to consider how the present reflects on what has happened, and how that story changes depending on perspective.
Ono's daily life has been drastically impacted by what has happened and there are many moments in which those he taught and worked with appear to have changed as well, but though we are allowed to see into Ono's memories, we never learn exactly what he's done that's turned out so detrimentally. The tactic is frustrating but consistent, forcing the reader to question the narrator's accuracy, particularly in scenes late in the novel in which the severity of his acts come into question.
This, coupled with the highly digressive nature of the narrative and the role of those digressions in advancing the action, make this much more interesting as a character study than as an examination of the ethics of family, marriage, occupation, and social life in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While the novel's political and social messages don't quite hit the mark because of this vagueness, the beauty of Ishiguro's writing and the consistency of Ono's voice propel a novel that is brief but powerful, a meditation on age and time that is uneven but nonetheless moving.
Ishiguro's story about Japan's war guilt, among other things, is an engaging read both in an emotional and historical sense.
Ishiguro is a master of subtle prose. This novel is never a dense read and the narrative flows smoothly and yet there are deep and swift currents beneath the surface that will catch the reader and leave them asking questions about Masuji Ono if they care to dip deeper. The novel is a character study of a man who has lived his life, done his best for his country, and then found himself on the wrong side of the line. At the same time, it is also a reflection on the realities of post-war Japan and the effect of their loss (and subsequent American occupation) on the national psyche. With elegant and evocative writing, Ishiguro once again creates a beautiful novel that haunts the reader after the final page.
Ishiguro explores the generation gap in post second world war Japan. The older generation who supported the war effort are being vilified by a younger generation determined to put the past behind them as they build a new Japan. Ono a retired former artist lives in a large house with his remaining daughter Noriko and is involved in some delicate wedding negotiations with the Saito family.
Ishiguro tells the story through Ono in the first person and we see the world through his eyes. We first see him with his family trying to establish a relationship with his grandson; there are difficulties, but it soon becomes apparent that there are greater difficulties with his kinship with his two daughters. Ono had been an artist of some repute, when he was seduced by the Japanese war machine into producing paintings for propaganda purposes. He was proud of his achievements and proud of the esteem in which he was held by his students and supporters. Over the course of the year long wedding negotiations Ono comes to realise that the new generation are at worst hostile and at least embarrassed by the work he did during the war. He is desperate to marry off Noriko and so he must come to terms with the decisions he took during the war years.
Ishiguro creates for the Western reader an unfamiliar world where honour and family are of primary importance. He portrays a rapidly changing economy where old structures and communities are fast disappearing, but society is still based on traditional values. Ono's changing world is very well described and he takes us back to previous times when he was a student and then a teacher and established artist. We are enchanted by his love of art and his generous support to his peers, but at the same time we are discomfited by his naivety and unworldliness. Now he not only has to come to terms with his declining reputation, but must also be prepared to refute his role during the war years in order to come to some sort of terms with the younger generation. Our sympathies are with Ono who has not understood the ramifications of the actions he has taken, but now must reconcile them in order to achieve closure for past actions.
Ishiguro's spare style suits the discreet manners of the Japanese society that he portrays, where few words are needed to inflict dishonour and opprobrium, however it also holds back Ono from expressing his thoughts to us readers in a way that would be more emotionally involving. I enjoyed the book but I will need to be careful what I say to B. when I give it back. I do not want to be too fulsome in my praise or I will be given another Ishiguro novel to read and I feel there are more rewarding reads waiting for me out there
Now I have a new copy it's high time for a reread!