An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)
Pride in one’s art is usually encouraged, but what if one’s art supported a cause or a thought process that’s no longer in favor or that has even become denigrated? Is the art to be thrown out completely as suspect, or can one admire the skill and technique of the artist, while questioning the themes represented? This is one of the main themes of An Artist of the Floating World. And as with many other literary novels, there are no easy answers when confronting such questions.
Born of Japanese parents, Ishiguro moved to the U.K. when he was five. He was brought up with Japanese cultural values, but his relationship with Japan is complex. During his early years, his reading and writing were more influenced by British writers than Japanese ones. This second novel, like his first published four years before, centers around Japanese characters; however, the style reflects those of his contemporaries in the British literary world of the 1980s. In fact, Ishiguro wouldn’t return to Japan until three years after this novel’s publication. So, his literary Japan is one based off of recollections from his parents, with imagination filling the gaps. Still, the novel captures the feelings of the period accurately when comparing it with history.
The novel, set in postwar Japan, follows Masuji Ono as he deals with the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II. He lost his wife in one of the last bombing raids of the war, and is now trying to arrange the marriage of his youngest daughter Noriko. There’s a dilemma however beyond trying to cope as a widower in a country trying to rebuild. Ono had a career as a successful artist decades before the war. During the 1930s, he however attached himself to the growing militaristic spirit of Imperial Japan. Once a painter of scenes of frivolity in the pleasure quarters of the city, he turned to painting political propaganda pieces after observing the poverty afflicting the country. This lead to a break with the artistic tradition that he was taught. At the height of Japanese conquests, he was held in esteem by the people and the government. With Japan’s defeat, his reputation is now in tatters, and he is held at a distance like a leper by many. The new ethos of democracy has supplanted the old imperial creed, and he increasingly seems to be a relict by his daughters and in-laws.
One of Ono’s primary struggles is finding a husband for that youngest daughter. Noriko is a woman in her mid-twenties, and she is steadily marching towards old maid-status according to the culture and period. Ono has a feeling that his role as an Imperial propagandist has hindered families from completing a match between their sons and his daughter. When the novel begins, one finds that a hopeful match had suddenly collapsed the year before, and Ono is nervous whether the current match will follow a similar pattern, especially if the family looks deeply into his past. Ono tries not to be ashamed of his past, but he knows that it has not only affected his daughter’s prospects, but his relationships with many of his past associates. During wartime, Ono served the government not only as a propagandist, but also as an informer against those artists expressing sentiments not in accord with the manifest destiny of the Japanese Empire. As those artists’ reputations are being rehabilitated postwar, his reputation has fallen due to individuals in the art world and government viewing him as a stooge of the militaristic regime.
Ono also has to deal with changes beyond the political culture. Because of the promotion of democracy, attitudes toward the elderly have changed too. Not that the younger generation is disrespectful to their elders, but they increasingly believe that new mores should be given a chance. This is seen in the contrasting situations where Ono deals with his grandson Ichiro and the way Ichiro’s mother Setsuko handles him. It seems that Ono is confused by Ichiro’s playful imitation of Western media characters, but Setsuko approves that Ichiro prefers Western heroes to the figures of Japanese history and legend. His daughters’ husbands profess similar admiration for the values promoted by the American Occupation, and this includes supporting the dismissal of senior staff in the corporate world who could’ve been tainted by the wartime ethos. As deference for one’s elders is part of traditional Japanese culture, Ono is confused by the wholesale rejection of everything prewar, and thinks it not entirely necessary, even though he realizes that Japan must admit responsibility for the war. Whether Ono finds himself responsible for some of the negativity associated with the period is still a mystery by the end of the novel, as he vacillates between opinions concerning his importance during wartime and whether all his art was nefarious when he promoted the war effort.
While the novel is definitely not a beach-read, it’s perfect for those who want something brief, but who don’t want to feel like they wasted their time on something with ephemeral value. Though not much external action takes place, it doesn’t feel like the characters are static. The restraint in the characters’ behavior often tells much more about their feelings and motivations. Because Ono is a flawed character, the reader sympathizes with him somewhat. Not that one agrees with his wartime career choices, but one believes that he sincerely believed that he was doing right. What the reader may have a problem with is Ono’s failure to acknowledge that the postwar reevaluation of expansionist mindset is perhaps closer to truth than his sincere wartime beliefs despite his associates and family prodding him in that direction. It’s not that Ono is a monster; he seems to be a kind family man, willing to yield in a number of matters. It’s that he is blind concerning aspects of his past, and this blindness is likely deliberate because those aspects may call into question his integrity as an artist.