An Artist of the Floating World

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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What lesson does the character Ono learn in An Artist of the Floating World?

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Hello! You asked what Ono learns in 'An Artist of the Floating World.'

This novel is about Masuji Ono, a Japanese painter, who in his youth painted the world of geishas in the 'floating world.' Ono tells us that his own father had burned his first paintings when he was fifteen, afraid that his son would not step up to the responsibilities of a Japanese son in adulthood. Ironically, this spurred Masuji Ono on all the more. Working under different masters who taught him how to portray the floating world of the geishas, Ono flourished in his artistry. However, he eventually discards his sensual work to become a nationalist artist, whose support for the Japanese imperialistic government during WWII would eventually bring him untold grief and regret.

What motivated Ono to embrace the fervor of his nationalistic art? One of his art pieces features three obese Japanese men sitting at a bar, laughing together, while near them are three boys, holding 'sticks in classic Kendo stances,' and wearing 'the manly scowls of Samurai warriors ready to fight.' This piece is named 'Complacency,' which tells us what Ono struggled with his entire life: he tells us that his father claims that a priest is sure that Ono has 'A weak streak that would give him a tendency towards slothfulness and deceit.' Isn't this what Ono is afraid of? A tendency to effeminacy, so condemned by his father? Is it any surprise that the so-called masculine, aggressive powers of Japanese imperialism so enslaved him?

As a member of the Japanese Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, he denounces Kuroda, his most talented student and ardent admirer. Kuroda is tortured and imprisoned, resulting in permanent injury. When his own family members condemn the Japanese global war of aggression during WWII, Ono is forced to admit his part in supporting the awful cause of violent Japanese imperialism:

“I made many mistakes. I accept that what I did was ultimately harmful to our nation, that mine was part of an influence that resulted in untold suffering for our own people.”

Ono learns that mere antagonistic violence does not constitute the whole spectrum of masculinity; it is Ono's nationalistic activities that contribute to the death of his only son, Kenji. Although Ono tells us that he acted in all sincerity and only wanted to rise above the mediocre, we know that Kenji's death mirrors that of many other young Japanese men during WWII. The suicidal missions deemed so necessary to a masculine identity sent many young men to their senseless deaths. Ono also learns that the younger generation is not so forgiving and cannot so readily forget the part he and the older generation played in the suffering of the Japanese people. Ono's son in law tells him:

”What really makes me angry...[is] that those who sent the likes of Kenji out die these brave deaths, where are they today? They’re carrying on with their lives, much the same as ever... Brave young men die for stupid causes, and the real culprits are still with us, afraid to show themselves for what they are... To my mind, that’s the greatest cowardice of all..."

Hope this helps. Thanks for the question!

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