Kazuo Ishiguro Ishiguro, Kazuo (Vol. 110) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kazuo Ishiguro 1954–

Japanese-born English novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Ishiguro's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 27, 56, and 59.

Considered one of the preeminent novelists of his generation, Ishiguro garnered international acclaim with his first two novels, solidifying his reputatuion with the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1995). Praised for the precision of his narratives, Ishiguro typically deals with themes of self-deception and self-delusion. The recipient of numerous literary awards, Ishiguro is often credited with infusing the British literary scene with new life.

Biographical Information

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan on November 8, 1954 to Shizuo, an oceanographer, and Shizuko Michida Ishiguro. In 1960, Ishiguro's father was temporarily assigned to help explore and develop oil deposits in the North Sea and the family, including two sisters, moved to England. By 1970 the family decided to remain in England; Ishiguro would not return to Japan again until 1989. He lived in an affluent London suburb and received a typical English up-bringing; however, he also spoke Japanese at home and was immersed in Japanese culture. After a period of indecision and travel, Ishiguro attended the University of Kent where he received a B.A. with honors in philosophy and literature in 1978. While working as a social worker in London, he met social worker Lorna Anne MacDougall whom he married on May 9, 1986. In 1980 he received a M.A. in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. While earning his degree he had three stories published in a new writers anthology and received a contract for his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982). He received the Winifred Holtby Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1983 for his first book and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1986 for his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986). In 1989 he won the coveted Booker award for his bestseller The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro was named to the Order of the British Empire for his literary work in 1995. He continues to write and live in London.

Major Works

Ishiguro's novels share similar stylistic elements and subject matter. In A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, he examines Japanese culture from a Western perspective. In The Remains of the Day he shifts his focus to post-World War I England and in The Unconsoled he retains an English character but moves the setting to a surreal city in Central Europe. However, through all of these novels, he remains committed to telling the story of isolated characters who are self-delusional—consumedwith appearances, honor, and duty. Through a unique, finely crafted first person narration, the reader uncovers the reality of the central characters' lives. Ishiguro does not present characters as much as he slowly reveals them through the stories they tell of their lives. A Pale View of Hills centers on Etsuko, a former Japanese housewife who resettled to England to live with her English husband and their daughter Niki. As Etsuko recounts the events of her life in Japan, a portrait of her develops as a submissive woman who has been unhappy with her life choices but has been consumed with maintaining appearances. An Artist of the Floating World takes place in a provincial Japanese town between 1948 and 1950 as the protagonist, Masuji Ono, attempts to reorder his life and his country in the wake of World War II. However, despite his efforts to move his thinking forward, Masuji is unable to comprehend how his family perceives him. The Remains of the Day is narrated by an elderly butler named Stevens who has spent his entire life in unquestioning service to an English Nazi sympathizer. In the name of duty he has fired Jewish maids, neglected his father, and failed to realize a relationship with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper. Stevens slowly realizes that his life has been overwhelmed by illusions and self-deception. The Unconsoled centers on a concert pianist named Ryder who has arrived in a Central European city to perform. However, Ryder seems to be disconnected, as if his life has turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare in which he moves from one disaster to another. Despite its greater length and its unrealistic tone, the novel still centers on the concept of self awareness and choices.

Critical Reception

Critics have focused heavily on the influence of Japanese philosophy and culture in Ishiguro's work, sometimes to the dismay of the author, who insists that his novels are firmly grounded in the British literary tradition. Beyond commenting on the obvious subject of Japanese characters and setting in Ishiguro's first two novels, critics have credited the author's taciturnity, fine sense of timing, and quiet tone to his Japanese heritage. Scholars and other writers have been almost universally impressed with Ishiguro's novels, as testified by the number of awards he has won at a relatively young age. Malcom Bradbury has credited him with saving the English novel by infusing it with new style. Ishiguro is often named with other writers such as Salman Rushdie for adding new dimensions to the British literary scene. However, critics are divided over The Unconsoled. While many praise Ishiguro for his ambition, some claim that the work is too long and fails to engage the reader. Others, such as Charlotte Innes, believe that The Unconsoled is exciting and humourous as well as poignant.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Pale View of Hills (novel) 1982
An Artist of the Floating World (novel) 1986
The Remains of the Day (novel) 1989
The Unconsoled (novel) 1995

Kazuo Ishiguro with Gregory Mason (interview date 8 December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 335-47.

[In the interview below, which was conducted on December 8, 1986, Ishiguro discusses Japanese and Western influences on his writing, his characters, and the writing process in his first two novels.]

In January 1987, Kazuo Ishiguro confirmed his position as Britain's leading young novelist. He was awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year Prize, the largest such cash prize in Britain, for his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro left Japan at the age of five and has not returned since. In most respects he has become thoroughly English, but as a writer he still draws considerably on his early childhood memories of Japan, his family upbringing, and the great Japanese films of the fifties.

Soon after publishing a few short stories, Ishiguro jumped to prominence in 1982 with his first novel, A Pale View of Hills. A Pale View of Hills was awarded the Royal Society of Literature's Winifred Holtby Prize and has since been translated into eleven languages. With great subtlety, Ishiguro presents a first-person narrator, Etsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman, now exiled in England some thirty years after World War II. Traumatized by the recent suicide of her elder daughter, she tells her own story and that of a wayward friend in postwar Nagasaki before she left. Her enigmatic recall, tantalizingly hamstrung by gaps and internal inconsistencies, works toward a dis-quieting and haunting revelation, masterfully embedded in the point of view itself.

Ishiguro's second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, is set in the Japan of the late forties. Ono, an aging painter, gropes in his diary entries toward a realization of the ironies of Japan's recent history, in which his own earlier, sincere convictions have enmeshed him. The gently ironic conclusion leaves Ono both humiliated and dignified, a kind of comic Everyman figure, wistfully trapped within his own horizons. Once more, the first-person perspective allows Ishiguro to finesse the confines of a linear plot, and again the author evinces an extraordinary control of voice, an uncannily Japanese quality emanating from his perfectly pitched English prose.

This interview took place on December 8, 1986, in Mr. Ishiguro's South London home. Throughout the course of his remarks, Ishiguro emerges as his own most discriminating interpreter and sternest critic. His meticulous interest in the craft of fiction and lucid grasp of his own aims and methods make this conversation an unusually valuable introduction and companion to the author's works.

[Mason]: How did your family's move in 1960 from Japan to England affect your upbringing and education?

[Ishiguro]: My parents have remained fairly Japanese in the way they go about things, and being brought up in a family you tend to operate the way that family operates. I still speak to my parents in Japanese. I'll switch back into Japanese as soon as I walk through the door. But my Japanese isn't very good. It's like a five-year-old's Japanese, mixed in with English vocabulary, and I use all the wrong forms. Apart from that, I've had a typical English education. I grew up in the south of England and went to a typical British school. At Kent University, I studied philosophy and English, and at East Anglia I did an M.A. in creative writing.

Do you feel you're writing in any particular tradition?

I feel that I'm very much of the Western tradition. And I'm quite often amused when reviewers make a lot of my being Japanese and try to mention the two or three authors they've vaguely heard of, comparing me to Mishima or something. It seems highly inappropriate. I've grown up reading Western fiction: Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens.

Are there any influences from the Japanese side as well?

Tanizaki, Kawabata, Ibuse, and a little Soseki, perhaps. But I'm probably more influenced by Japanese movies. I see a lot of Japanese films. The visual images of Japan have a great poignancy for me, particularly in domestic films like those of Ozu and Naruse, set in the postwar era, the Japan I actually remember.

Your first novel, A Pale View of Hills, also deals with memories of Japan, but they are repressed memories with ellipses that the reader has to work to fill in.

Yes. In that book, I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It's about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there's a certain area of her life that's very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection.

There are certain things, a bit like in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, that are just unresolved. For instance, in the pivotal scene on the bridge when Etsuko is talking to her friend Sachiko's daughter Mariko, she switches without warning to addressing the child as if she herself were actually the child's mother. At the most extreme, that leads the reader to ponder whether the two women were not one and the same person.

What I intended was this: because it's really Etsuko talking about herself, and possibly that somebody else, Sachiko, existed or did not exist, the meanings that Etsuko imputes to the life of Sachiko are obviously the meanings that are relevant to her (Etsuko's) own life. Whatever the facts were about what happened to Sachiko and her daughter, they are of interest to Etsuko now because she can use them to talk about herself. So you have this highly Etsuko-ed version of this other person's story; and at the most intense point, I wanted to suggest that Etsuko had dropped this cover. It just slips out: she's now talking about herself. She's no longer bothering to put it in the third person.

I thought that the effect of this scene was quite stunning.

Yes, that scene itself works all right, if the rest of the book had built up to that kind of ambiguity. But the trouble is that the flashbacks are too clear, in a way. They seem to be related with the authority of some kind of realistic fiction. It doesn't have the same murkiness of someone trying to wade through their memories, trying to manipulate memories, as I would have wanted. The mode is wrong in those scenes of the past. They don't have the texture of memory. And for that reason the ending doesn't quite come off. It's just too sudden. I intended with that scene for the reader finally to realize, with a sense of inevitability, "Of course, yes, she's finally said it." Instead, it's a shock. I didn't quite have the technical sophistication to pull it off, and the result is that it's a bit baffling. Fortunately, a lot of people quite enjoy being baffled. As you say, you're knocked over sideways. You feel you have to read the book again, which is a different sort of effect.

There is a dissonance between the picture that Etsuko paints of herself when back in Japan as a very timid, conventional person and the rather bold, unconventional things she emerges as actually having done: leaving her husband, leaving her homeland, and so on. That's another gap the reader has to wrestle with.

Yes, that's the gap in A Pale View of Hills. We can assume that the real Etsuko of the past is somewhat nearer the mousy Etsuko she talks about in the forties than she is to the Sachiko figure. After all, that is her account, the emotional story of how she came to leave Japan, although that doesn't tell you the actual facts. But I'm not interested in the solid facts. The focus of the book is elsewhere, in the emotional upheaval.

In some ways, especially in the dream sections, it seems as if Etsuko is trying to punish herself. She lashes herself with grief and guilt at the suicide of her daughter Keiko. Yet in other ways, it seems as if she's trying to rearrange the past so that she doesn't come out of it too badly. Am I right in seeing these two things?

Yes, the book is largely based around her guilt. She feels a great guilt, that out of her own emotional longings for a different sort of life, she sacrificed her first daughter's happiness. There is that side to her that feels resistant to her younger daughter Nikki, who tells her, "You've got nothing to worry about," and that she did exactly the right thing. She feels that this isn't quite a true account. But on the other hand, she does need to arrange her memories in a way that allows her to salvage some dignity.

There were some partly developed comic themes in A Pale View of Hills, but they didn't quite take hold.

Yes, whatever echoes I wanted to start between Etsuko and Ogata, the father-in-law, very much faded away. Let's say I was a less experienced writer at that point, and I think that one of the things that happens to less experienced writers is that you cannot control the book, as more experienced writers can. You bring in an element without realizing what the implication of this is on the rest of the book. A lot of the things I was initially most interested in got completely upstaged by things I almost inadvertently set in motion. But you get very excited when you're writing your first novel. And once having figured out these clever little narrative strategies, then you bring in this and you bring in that, and suddenly you find that two-thirds of the book is concerned with something else altogether. The Etusko-Sachiko story about exile and parental responsibility was essentially something which I waylaid myself into. I often would bring in things simply because they worked rather nicely on that particular page in that particular chapter. And suddenly, I'd find myself with a daughter who'd hung herself, or whatever, on my hands and I'd have to figure out how to deal with that. If you really want to write something, you shouldn't bring things into your book lightly. It's a bit like taking in lodgers. They're going to be with you a long time. I think the most important thing I learned between writing the first and second novels is the element of thematic discipline.

What drew you to your subject and to the theme of the older artist in your second novel, An Artist of the Floating World? Were you thinking of anyone in particular, or of any groups?

Not really, no. I suppose I was thinking of myself and my peers, the generation that came to university in the sixties and the seventies. I write out of a kind of projected fear of reaching a certain age and looking back. I am interested in that particular form of wasting one's talents, not because you spent your whole life lying on your back, not doing anything. I'm interested in people who, in all sincerity, work very hard and perhaps courageously in their lifetimes toward something, fully believing that they're contributing to something good, only to find that the social climate has done a topsyturvy on them by the time they've reached the ends of their lives. The very things they thought they could be proud of have now become things they have to be ashamed of. I'm drawn to that period in Japanese history because that's what happened to a whole generation of people. They lived in a moral climate that right up until the end of the war said that the most praise-worthy thing they could do was to use their talents to further the nationalist cause in Japan, only to find after the war that this had been a terrible mistake. An Artist of the Floating World is an exploration of somebody trying to come to terms with the fact that he has somehow misused his talents unknowingly, simply because he didn't have any extraordinary power of insight into the world he lived in.

Where is An Artist of the Floating World set?

It's just an imaginary city, for various reasons. Once I set it in an actual city, then the obligation to actually check up would become boringly relevant, and there seemed to be no point. It was of no value to me if I could claim that it's authentically set in Tokyo or not. In fact, in many ways it...

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Merle Rubin (review date 30 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of The Remains of the Day, in Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 1989, p. 13.

[In the following review of The Remains of the Day, Rubin praises Ishiguro's ability to get inside his characters and portray all their complexities.]

Stevens, the hero of Kazuo Ishiguro's third novel, is the perfect butler. All his life he has sought to embody the ideals of his profession: service, composure, dignity, and discretion. Having reached an age when, although still fully employed, he is starting to think about the shape of the rest of his life—"the remains of the day"—Stevens has set out (with his employer's blessing, to be sure) on a highly...

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Gabriele Annan (review date 7 December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gabriele Annan, "On the High Wire," in New York Review of Books, December 7, 1989, pp. 3-4.

[In the review below, Annan argues that in Ishiguro's first three novels he has brilliantly portrayed characters who are unable to see their own faults, evoking condemnation and pity.]

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan thirty-five years ago. He came to England when he was six, and has lived there ever since. This is a stranger experience than being Japanese in the United States, where the landscape is dotted with second and third generation Japanese. Even twenty years ago, few Japanese lived in England, and a Japanese child, except in a group of tourists, was a rare sight...

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Hermione Lee (review date 22 January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hermione Lee, "Quiet Desolation," in New Republic, January 22, 1990, pp. 36-9.

[In the review below, Lee discusses the relative influence of Japanese and English culture on Ishiguro's first three novels.]

On the strength of three dazzling short novels, Kazuo Ishiguro is now, at 35, a famous prize-winning writer in Britain. (Hardly anyone in America had heard of him until this year, but that's changing.) Still, I notice that people are always getting the titles of his books slightly wrong. Is it A Pale View of the Hills? The Artist of the Floating World, or Artist of the Floating World, or The Artist of a Floating World? The Remains of...

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Kazuo Ishiguro with Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger (interview date 2 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stuck on the Margins: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro," in Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists, edited by Allan Vorda, Rice University Press, 1993, pp. 1-35.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on April 2, 1990, Ishiguro discusses Japanese and British culture, perceptions of himself in each country, and how these perceptions have helped and hindered his career as a writer. Questions are posed by Vorda unless otherwise noted.]

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, and emigrated to Britain in 1960. He attended the University of Kent at Canterbury and received an M.A. in creative writing from the University of East...

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Cynthia F. Wong (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cynthia F. Wong, "The Shame of Memory: Blanchot's Self-Dispossession in Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills," in Clio, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 127-45.

[In the following essay, Wong employs literary theorist Maurice Blanchot's theories on first person narration to analyze Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills.]

"… the necessary condition for the solitude of a madman is the presence of a lucid witness."


The first novels of the Japanese-born and British-educated contemporary writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, employ a deceptively simple narrative strategy to develop the...

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Bert Cardullo (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bert Cardullo, "The Servant," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 616-22.

[In the following essay Cardullo compares the movie version of The Remains of the Day with the novel.]

Milan Kundera once made a helpful distinction between two sorts of novels set in the past. There is, on the one hand, "the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation … popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel," and on the other hand the novel that examines "the historical dimension of human existence." In the first case, cardboard cutouts are wheeled out to represent "the bourgeoisie" or "the last...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 12 May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roz Kaveney, "Tossed and Turned," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 352, May 12, 1995, p. 39.

[In the following negative review, Kaveney calls The Unconsoled a "talented mess of a novel."]

Dreams are the most personal of universal experiences. Writers who deal in them may get credit for what is recognised or for what forces its way into the shared grammar of dreaming, but will be told there is no art in telling what everyone knows. They will be blamed for anything that seems too personal or feels like mere invention. Ishiguro's tortuous tale of missed appointments suffers, and occasionally succeeds, under all these rubrics.


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Merle Rubin (review date 4 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Probing the Plight of Lives 'Trapped' in Others' Expectations," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, October 4, 1995, p. 14.

[In the following review of The Unconsoled, Rubin argues that while the book may seem labyrinthine and nearly boring, it is also fascinating and skillfully written.]

Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1981), portrays his native city, Nagasaki, in the wake of the bombing that devastated it nine years before his birth. His second novel An Artist of the Floating World (1986), unfolded in the alien milieu of prewar, imperialist Japan. In his third novel, the Booker Prize-winning Remains of...

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Richard Eder (review date 8 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Richard Eder, "Meandering in a Dreamscape," in Los Angeles Time Book Review, October 8, 1995, pp. 3, 7.

[In the following review, Eder claims that The Unconsoled is a complex and ambitious novel which becomes wearisome but is also rewarding.]

Awake, we choose our life or our life chooses us, and we spend our days living out the consequences of the choice. Asleep and dreaming, we are haunted by all the choices we didn't make and their exfoliating consequences. A kind of vital mainspring usually lets us give priority to our daytime acts and keep at bay the infinite alternatives, which, if admitted, would bring us to a clogged halt.


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Brooke Allen (review date 11 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brooke Allen, "Leaving Behind Daydreams for Nightmares," in The Wall Street Journal, October 11, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review of The Unconsoled, Allen argues that while Ishiguro has chosen a new writing style, his subject matter remains the same.]

Six years ago, at the age of 35, Kazuo Ishiguro came to international attention as the author of The Remains of the Day, an elegant novel that won the 1989 Booker Prize and was made into a film by Merchant and Ivory. In The Remains of the Day Mr. Ishiguro trod territory that he had already explored in his first two novels. A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the...

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Charlotte Innes (review date 6 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charlotte Innes, "Dr. Faustus Faces the Music," in The Nation, Vol. 261, No. 15, November 6, 1995, pp. 546-48.

[In the following review of The Unconsoled, Innes praises Ishiguro for creating an exciting, well written, and humourous novel.]

How hard it is to be true to yourself when people expect you to be something else. Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born English writer, known to millions for the movie version of his Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day, has wrestled for his identity more than most, first as an immigrant writer struggling to throw off the noose of stereotype and now as a postmodern novelist who jolted British critical...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 6 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stanley Kauffmann, "The Floating World," in The New Republic, Vol. 213, No. 19, November 6, 1995, pp. 42-5.

[In the review below, Kauffmann suggests that The Unconsoled builds on Ishiguro's first three novels and should be interpreted in terms of the earlier works.]

Those who were lucky enough, or smart enough, to read Kazuo Ishiguro's first three novels in order of publication came to the third one, The Remains of the Day, with an advantage over the rest of us. Ishiguro was born in Japan and he has lived in England since he was five. (He is now 41.) To those who began with the third book, including myself, Ishiguro's huge cultural shift made that...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Wilhelmus, Tom. "Between Cultures." The Hudson Review XLIX, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 321-22.

Argues that The Unconsoled comments on the difficulties of being caught between cultures.

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