Kazuo Ishiguro Essay - Critical Essays

Kazuo Ishiguro Long Fiction Analysis

A common link among Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels is the prominence of the first-person narrator, through whose meandering thoughts the story unfolds. Readers soon discover, however, that these central voices are rather unreliable in their accounts of past reactions to crises. For each, there lurks in the past an experience that may invalidate the narrator’s projected sense of self and destroy the vestiges of the individual’s human dignity. What exactly it is that hovers in the dark as each novel opens is a mystery that unravels only slowly, and the process keeps the reader on edge until a final climactic revelation. Even then, however, pieces of the central mystery remain left to the reader to put together.

Throughout his literary work, Ishiguro has created a wide range of characters, settings, and plots and has worked in many genres. He has been equally successful in creating female and male central characters. One important recurring theme has been the role that memory plays in shaping characters’ understanding of themselves. Ishiguro also demonstrates persistent concern with power and the effects of authoritarian ideologies.

A Pale View of Hills

In a move that would become typical for his fiction, Ishiguro opens his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, with the narrator seemingly in control, living through a brief, critical moment in the present. As small events trigger a stream of personal memories, answers emerge to questions that the narrator—like all of Ishiguro’s central characters—refuses to discuss openly. Accordingly, the novel moves along two temporal planes after Etsuko Sheringham is visited at her home in England by Niki, her younger daughter by her second (now dead) British husband; that visit comes just after the suicide of Niki’s elder, Japan-born sister, Keiko.

In a pattern that again foreshadows how later characters will interact with one another, mother and daughter communicate on a very formal, restrained level that allows neither to say what is really on her mind; instead, they hover together on the abyss opened by Keiko’s death. Niki justifies her refusal to go to Keiko’s funeral: For many years before she left the family home in the South to go away to Manchester, Keiko had locked herself up in her room, emerging only to commence bitter fights with her stepfather and half sister.

It is only through Etsuko’s memories, and her haunting recurring dream about a young girl, that the extent of Etsuko’s pain becomes visible. About five years after the atom bomb was dropped on her native town of Nagasaki, Etsuko was pregnant with her first child by her Japanese husband, Jiro Ogata. Living in a newly built concrete high-rise at the edge of the city just as it was beginning to come to life again, she initiated a friendship with a war widow, Sachiko, who lived with her ten-year-old daughter, Mariko, in a riverbank cottage across a muddy wasteland. The war years had deeply touched Mariko, who witnessed how a young mother drowned her baby and later killed herself in Tokyo. Now she was fantasizing about a woman coming at night with a lantern and guiding her across the river, where hills rise above Nagasaki’s port. These hills were visible to Etsuko from her apartment, and it is to them that they all went on a day of rare happiness for Mariko.

When Frank, Sachiko’s American lover, whom Mariko deeply resented for his Western-style behavior—“He pisses like a pig,” she said—finally seemed ready to take them to the United States, Sachiko went out to drown Mariko’s kittens, which could not go with them. In a stunning move characteristic of Ishiguro’s love of close parallelisms, the second drowning quite clearly echoes the wartime murder of the baby; both older women turned to Mariko, revealing their wet victims to the child.

Following them, Etsuko took up a lantern and went to the river; trying to soothe a despondent Mariko, she suddenly spoke as if she were the mother, about to leave Japan. To bring home this sudden point of ambivalent narration, Etsuko gives Niki a calendar picture taken from the hills, remarking that it was Keiko, not Mariko as related earlier, who had been “happy that day.” The reader thus realizes that Sachiko’s cruel treatment of her daughter, Mariko, reflects Etsuko’s own fear that she may be guilty of Keiko’s death because she left Japan with her second, British husband when the girl was quite small. Ishiguro ends the novel, however, with Niki’s departure as Etsuko, purified by her memories, is able to wave good-bye with a smile.

While A Pale View of Hills centers mostly on a question of personal guilt, it also contains the story of Etsuko’s first father-in-law, Seiji Ogata, a former teacher now publicly denounced by one of his former students for his imperialist leanings during World War II. This conflict of a man trying to come to terms with his past actions in a broad historical setting is made the artistic center of Ishiguro’s second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, and is also a powerful theme in The Remains of the Day.

An Artist of the Floating World

Written like a diary entry to be shared with a close friend, An Artist of the Floating World allows Ishiguro to develop further the subjective mind-set of a narrator, in this case the old painter Masuji Ono, and the gradual resurfacing of suppressed memories. Like that of Etsuko in A Pale View of Hills, however, Ono’s interpretation of the past cannot be trusted fully.

The reader becomes gradually acquainted with Ono’s troubled career as, in the present of the postwar period of 1948, the old man worries about marriage negotiations for his second daughter; these negotiations, he fears, may fall through because of his past acts. Starting as a fashionable artist who had taken his themes and motifs from the underworld—the Japanese term is “Floating World”—of the bohemians, artists, and geishas of his unnamed city, Ono denounced his “decadence” during the rise of imperialism in the 1930’s. Rebelling against his old master, the young Ono now painted pieces in the style of “patriotic realism” preferred by the Militarists.

Success came almost immediately, but Ono’s masterful pictures became powerful tools of imperial propaganda as well. To reinforce the issue of Ono’s personal guilt, Ishiguro creates again a close parallel between Ono’s earlier rejection by his bohemian teacher, who cruelly confiscates his pictures when Ono changes artistic direction and joins the “patriotic” cause, and Ono’s own denunciation of his favorite pupil to the secret police in the 1930’s. Like Ogata in A Pale View of Hills, Ono supports the imperialist Committee on Unpatriotic Activities—an institution that is Ishiguro’s symbol for the wrongs of a system that betrayed the idealism of those who, with exuberant naïveté, put their talents in its service. Confronted with the consequences of his patriotism, Ono now must ask himself whether he wasted or abused his talents by serving the Devil.

Yet again, Ishiguro’s resolution to Ono’s crisis is marked by a disarming, gently ironic humanism. Finally ready to admit to his daughter’s potential in-laws that he has, in fact, erred and been guilty, Ono finds his grand confession brushed aside by the groom’s family, who tell the old man that they regard his former political leanings as irrelevant to the marriage; he was never that important. Ono’s being put in his place by the...

(The entire section is 3102 words.)