Addressing the reader like an old friend in what reads like portions of a diary, the old Japanese painter Masuji Ono, the narrator of Ishiguro’s second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, uses the imminent marriage negotiations for his younger daughter, Noriko, in 1948 to reflect on his life and his career as an artist. Characteristically for Ishiguro, everything that the reader learns comes directly from the first-person narrator, whose account freely wanders from the present to various instances in the past, deliberately refusing to tell a chronological story. The narrator’s voice also is highly subjective and cannot be trusted blindly.
Thus, through Ono’s musings the reader becomes gradually acquainted with the narrator’s troubled career, which is related in a total of four diary entries spanning the years 1948 to 1950. Starting as a fashionable artist who took his themes and motifs from the underworld—the Japanese term is “Floating World”—of the bohemians, artists, and geishas of his unnamed city, Ono eventually denounced his “decadence” during the rise of imperialism in Japan in the 1930’s. As a rebel against his old master Matsuda, the young Ono now painted pieces that, like his masterpiece Complacency, attacked what he felt was the corruption of an aimless, modern world—here represented by three drinking men—and juxtaposed it with “heroic” images, such as the band of angry young men confronting the well-dressed drinkers in his picture.
Success came almost immediately, and Ono did not have to illustrate comic books, as his master scornfully predicted. However, Ono’s masterful pictures also became powerful tools of imperial propaganda. To reinforce the issue of Ono’s personal guilt, Ishiguro creates a close parallel between Ono’s earlier rejection by his bohemian teacher, Matsuda, who cruelly confiscates Ono’s pictures when he changes artistic directions and joins the “patriotic” cause, and Ono’s own denunciation of his favorite pupil to the secret police in...
(The entire section is 499 words.)