An Artist of the Floating World

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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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 1930’s.

Like the former teacher, Seiji Ogata, in Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), 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.

Ishiguro’s resolution to Ono’s crisis, however, 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’s grand confession is brushed aside by the groom’s family, who tell the old man that they regard his former political leanings as irrelevant to their son’s marriage; the painter was never that important. Guilty but ignored by a young generation too busy to worry about old men, Ono can watch mirthfully as the young prepare to embark on their own lives.

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