Book Reviews

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

In a story of accountability and guilt, an aging Japanese painter reminisces and takes stock of his past in the aftermath of World War II to understand if he truly is culpable for the decisions he made before and during the war

Published: 1986 | Paperback: 206 pages | Genre: Fiction

From the Nobel Prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro comes a tale of accountability and guilt. An aging painter reminisces and takes stock of his past to understand if he truly is culpable because of the decisions he made before and during the war or if he is a hero. 

Set three years after World War II in Japan, the novel’s protagonist Masuji Ono was once a highly respected artist. Now, he whiles away his days in his home that has been damaged by the war. As he slowly works on restoring his house, he must contend with the new world – a world that is the result of losing his wife and son in the war; a world in which his two daughters are passive-aggressive and treat him with disdain; a world in which the young generation lay the blame of the loss of war on their leaders and elders. 

As marriage negotiations for his younger daughter are in progress, Ono is often targeted for being responsible, albeit indirectly, for the failure of an earlier marriage negotiation of hers. He connects with his friends from the past in an attempt to draw favorable comments from them in the course of investigations that his daughter’s betrothed and his family are likely to conduct. As the drama over what happened before and what could possibly go wrong again unfolds, Ono reflects on the role his past may be playing in influencing current events. 

Ono emerges as an unreliable narrator – he often narrates an entire incident, complete with who said what, only to turn around and say, ‘maybe these were not the words he used.’ But it is only through his reminiscing that we discover Ono’s true story. Ono is a relic of pre-war Japan. As a young man, his father wanted him to take over the family business, thinking little of his talent as a painter. But Ono went ahead and poured his heart and soul into his art. We see him through his artistic development – working for long hours, sleeping little and working in a cramped studio with other amateur painters. Ono was a witness of traditional Japanese culture, the teahouses, the geishas, and his job was to translate the beauty of the floating world into art. But that was before his break from his teacher and his learnings. Eventually, Ono moves his paintings away from the ephemeral nature of the world of pleasure to focus on more concrete issues by painting nationalist, propaganda war posters. 

In his mind, he is a hero. But then there are people of his time and make who have turned out to be cowards. From former political leaders to a musician who wrote pro-war songs, people have committed suicide in an attempt to seek redemption for their actions. 

Ono struggles to cope with the changes in this new world which are influenced by American values. The American occupation of Japan has changed popular attitudes to the extent that even his 7-year old grandson Ichiro prefers to imitate ‘Popeye the Sailorman’ and the cowboy ‘Lone Ranger’ with the dramatic horse-riding, whip-yielding cry of ‘Hi, yo Silver!’

The young generation thinks of the war leaders and propagandists as traitors – they are the ones that led the country towards disaster and sacrificed seasoned men and young boys to die in the war. The tensions between the younger generation and their elders, as is the case with Ono’s daughters and their husbands on the one hand, and Ono on the other is always palpable. It is in insignificant matters that it takes on massive proportions. In one incident Ono promises Ichiro that he can have his first cup of sake at dinner while both his daughters, without being outright rude or blunt, defeat his idea as something that is nothing short of horrific. 

Shot in 8K, NHK – the Japanese pubcaster, brought An Artist of the Floating World to the screen in October 2019. It stars Ken Watanabe in the role of Masuji Ono.  

As a reader, I was thrilled with the simplicity and the depth of this story. The book explores several themes – from the unreliability of memory to the changing values of a traditional society in a modern world; from the pain of aging to the burdens of loneliness; from the immense pride, one feels in one’s work to the subconscious regret for it having been used for a cause that caused immense damage to human lives and to the psychology of a country. But mostly this novel shows Japan at a time of turbulently shifting values – the behavior of friends and neighbors is unnecessarily filled with polite formalities; there is pride and there is humility, both deserved and underserved in parts; there is the presence of memory which either becomes much more than what really was or completely disappears to suit the conscience. In that sense, the meaning of the title “floating world” continues to evolve throughout the book. 

 “It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubt it’s very validity”

In the aftermath of a national disaster, who is to blame and to what extent. Does every leader and laborer count equally? This novel exposes the fragility of a totalitarian regime and the impact it leaves on society at large and on family units individually – the remaining participants suffer contempt at the hands of non-participants while allowing their own miserable conscience to stay in denial of their role. 

It is the absence of black-and-white answers that makes human life so rich. And Ishiguro does the job of exposing this very well. His troubled protagonist is seeking redemption for the decisions he made – decisions he was once proud of but isn’t anymore. Ono was once an ardent promoter of fascist ideas, but now in the wake of liberal democracy that is Japan’s new destiny, he must feel ashamed. 

This must have been Japan’s reality in the days after the war – the role of elders in Japanese society changing dramatically. Pearl S Buck also alludes to this in her memoir, A Bridge for Passingin which she points out how during her visit to Japan in 1960 she noticed the women had changed in more than just their attire after the war had brought Western ideas to an Oriental country. Far too much seems to have changed too soon during this time in Japan’s history and Ishiguro does his best to convey it through a narrative that is simple in its telling but complex in its layers. 

An Artist of the Floating World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1986 and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. This is Ishiguro’s second work of fiction and has been translated in over 40 languages across the world. 

This post is part of our January 2020 Issue

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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