An Artist of the Floating World
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|Publisher||Faber and Faber|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
|Preceded by||A Pale View of Hills|
|Followed by||The Remains of the Day|
An Artist of the Floating World (1986) is a novel by Nobel Prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It is set in post-World War II Japan and is narrated by Masuji Ono, an ageing painter, who looks back on his life and how he has lived it. He notices how his once great reputation has faltered since the war and how attitudes towards him and his paintings have changed. The chief conflict deals with Ono's need to accept responsibility for his past actions and in the expostulation to find a path to peace in his good will for the young white collar workers on the streets at lunchbreak. The novel also deals with the role of people in a rapidly changing environment and with the assuming of guilt.
The novel falls under both historical fiction and global literature (Weltliteratur). It is known as historical fiction due to its basis on remembering the past and it draws from historical facts. It is also known as global literature as it has a broad international market and allows for a study on how the world today is interconnected.
Originally published in 1986, it was named the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Published by Faber and Faber it is also printed by publishing companies such as Allen and Unwin and Penguin Vintage International. It has become an eBook version additionally and is available on most eBook websites such as kindle and iBook’s, since 2012. Currently, An Artist of the Floating World, has been translated into over 40 languages around the world.
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954, eventually moving to England at the age of five, only to return to Japan twenty-nine years later. Growing up Ishiguro had a traditionally Japanese mother, who resultantly influenced his writing when reflecting on Japan. Furthermore, his reading of Japanese novels and comics allowed him to stay connected to his Japanese heritage as well as see the differences between Western and Japanese society, influencing his writing through developing a sense of Japanese ideals.
The inclusion of Ichiro’s cowboy obsession stemmed from Ishiguro’s own fascination with cowboys during his youth. Ishiguro was inspired to write An Artist of the Floating World, due to his original novel A Pale View of Hills, which included an old teacher character, that has to rediscover and invent his own morals. This reflects his own consistent rediscovery and invention of himself throughout his youth and adult years. Furthermore, owing to his childhood of moving countries and subsequently not feeling like he ‘fit-in’ he wrote in a very globalised and international way; through writing Ishiguro explored his background and heritage. The novel overall, is a reflection of Ishiguro's personal feelings of Japanese heritage, a fictional reflection of his sense of identity, as presented through a youthful reconstruction of Japan.
The novel's title is based on the literal translation of Ukiyo-e, a word referring to the Japanese art of prints. Therefore, it can be read as "a printmaker" or "an artist living in a changing world," given both Ono's limited understanding and the dramatic changes his world, Japan in the first half of the twentieth century, has undergone in his lifetime.
The title also refers to an artistic genre. Ono's master was especially interested in depicting scenes from the pleasure district adjacent to the villa in which he and his students lived. Ono mentions the ephemeral nature of the floating world that could be experienced during each night. His master experimented with innovative softer Western-style painting techniques. Ono became estranged from him and forged his own career. He could not help but feel gleeful when his master's paintings fell into disfavour during a return to the use of more traditional bold lines in the paintings used for nationalistic posters.
An Artist of the Floating World, is structured through the interwoven memories of protagonist Masuji Ono. The novel is set in three distinctly different years however, Ono's memories span as far back to when he was a child. The four different years and title sections of the novel are: October 1948, April 1949, November 1949 and June 1950.
In the buildup to World War II, Ono, a promising artist, had broken away from the teaching of his master, whose artistic aim was to reach an aesthetic ideal, and had gotten involved in far-right politics, making propagandistic art. As a member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department and official adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, Ono had become a police informer, taking an active part in an ideological witch hunt. After the 1945 defeat and the collapse of jingoistic Imperial Japan, Ono has become a discredited figure, one of the "traitors" who "led the country astray"; meanwhile, the victims of state repression, including people Ono himself had denounced, are reinstated and allowed to lead a normal life. Over the course of the first three sections, spanning October 1948 – November 1949, Ono seems to show a growing acknowledgement of his past "errors", although this acknowledgement is never explicitly stated. However, in the short fourth and last section (June 1950), Ono appears to have returned to his earlier inability to change his viewpoint.
The book is written in the first person and hinges on the exclusive use of a single, unreliable narrator, expressing a viewpoint which the reader identifies as limited and fallible, without any other voice or point of view acting as a test. Ono often makes it clear that he is not sure of the accuracy of his narrative, but this may either make the reader cautious or, on the contrary, suggest that Ono is very honest and, therefore, trustworthy.
The self-image Ono expresses in his narrative is vastly different from the image of him the reader builds from reading the same narrative. Ono often quotes others as expressing admiration and indebtedness to him. Ono's narrative is characterised by denial, so that his interests and his hierarchy of values are at odds with the reader's. Readers, therefore, find that what they are interested in is not the focus of Ono's narrative but at its fringes, presented in an oblique rather than direct fashion. For example, Ono's descriptions of his pictures focus on pictorial technique, mentioning the subjects as if they were unimportant, although they reveal the propagandistic nature of his work. It is not entirely clear whether this focus on style rather than substance should be ascribed to Ono as narrator (showing his retrospective, unconscious embarrassment), or if it was already present in him at the time he was making the pictures (showing that totalitarianism exploits people's capacity to restrain their awareness to limited aspects of their actions). Similarly, when Ono narrates an episode in which he was confronted with the results of his activities as a police informer, it is debatable whether his attempt to mitigate the brutality of the police is a retrospective fabrication devised to avoid his own responsibility, or whether he actually did disapprove of the treatment of the person he had denounced, distancing himself from his actions and refusing to recognise the abusive treatment as a direct and foreseeable consequence of those actions.
Masuji Ono (小野 益次 Ono Masuji) is the narrator and protagonist of the novel. He is presented as an elderly artist, father and grandfather to his family. Throughout the novel he is concerned with his youngest daughter's marriage negotiations. As a child his father was reluctant for him to become a painter, however as he grew older he soon became an artist. He previously worked in his younger years with the nationalist government in the creation of wartime paintings. Presently, whilst his art career before his involvement with propaganda paintings is applauded, his other work is scorned. This results in Ono living a conflicting life.
Noriko is Ono's youngest daughter. She lives with him in his house and is seen as sometimes indignant and bad-mannered. She is somewhat bitter to Ono in the beginning of the novel as she believes he was the core reason as to why her original marriage arrangement was cancelled. However, she soon become enamoured with her second marriage arrangement and is happy when she eventually marries him. Noriko views her father, Ono, as someone she must care for forming a small resentment and anger towards him. Noriko is very outspoken and boisterous throughout the novel, contrasting Setsuko.
Setsuko is Ono's eldest daughter. She is a quiet and traditional woman, who is married to Suichi and has a son named Ichiro. She and Ono have a solid relationship and she helps him throughout the marriage arrangement proceedings and dealing with his guilt post-war; she acts as his listener. Setsuko and Noriko have a strong, sisterly relationship, however they are quite different temperament wise.
Ichiro is Ono's grandson, Setsuko's child and Noriko's nephew. He is a young boy in the novel with an active imagination. To Ono, Ichiro can be confusing and alienating owing to his adoption of Western culture such as some English words and his obsession with cowboys and the movie Godzilla. They have a good relationship, and bond over their masculinity frequently.
Suichi is Setsuko's husband and son-in-law to Ono. He represents the new and changing ideals of Japan and is quite outspoken regarding Ono's role in the war. He frequently speaks out about his opinions regarding the war. Before the war he was seen as a well-mannered and happy man, however post-war he has seen to have changed into a relatively angry and bitter man as a result of his experiences as a soldier.
Kuroda was Ono's protégé and student. They initially had a strong relationship, but after Ono disapproved of the direction of Kuroda's art he reported Kuroda to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. This results in Kuroda being punished and his paintings destroyed. He therefore develops a strong dislike for Ono, and never sees him again.
Matsuda is characterised as a nationalist who ultimately influences Ono, to create politicised paintings. He disparages artists who do not deal with social and political issues through their art, considering them to be naïve. After the war, he becomes a sick and elderly individual who Ono visits relatively frequently. He is quite regretful of remaining unmarried and having no heirs to succeed him.
Seiji Moriyama, also known as Mori-san during the novel, was Ono's art teacher during his younger years. He is a strong believer in painting the ‘floating world’ and teaches students in his villa. His main artistic technique is the inclusion of Western techniques such using dark lines in favour of shading. He is a stubborn yet nurturing figure, however once students steer away from his techniques, they are soon told to leave.
Dr Saito is a major art professor with a high social standing. Ono believes he is well acquainted with his work, however Setsuko disagrees throughout the novel, raising questions as to the validity of his memory.
Mrs. Kawakami is the bar owner of which Ono frequent regularly, in the pleasure district of where he lives. She is a good friend of Ono. She remains hopeful throughout the novel that the pleasure district will have a resurrection, however this is not the case and she thus sells her bar by the end.
Nakahara, also referred to as ‘The Tortoise’ due to his slow painting, is a friend of Ono's during his youthful days at Mori-san's villa. He is mocked by many of Mori-san's pupils for his slow painting however Ono soon defends him. However, after Ono alters his painting style to become politically associated he distances himself, believing Ono has become a traitor.
An Artist of the Floating World discusses several themes through the memories of the narrator, Masuji Ono. The analysis of these themes is facilitated through the transcendence of time, allowing the audience's rumination on Ono's experiences permitting them to judge the narrative objectively. Many of these themes are interwoven together supporting one another.
Among the themes explored in this novel are arranged marriage, the changing roles of women, and the declining status of "elders" in Japanese society since 1945. The novel is narrated by a man who, besides being an artist, is also a father, a grandfather, and a widower. It tells, with a strong voice, much about the "pleasure era" of Japanese society, elaborating on the life of a successful and devoted young artist in a decadent era. The reader learns how attitudes toward Japanese art and society became less tolerant of such extravagance, and what it was like to live with the guilt of such pleasure. The pace is slow and lingers over details, reflecting the central theme.
Politicisation of art
Art is a central theme to the novel, with Ono's role as a propaganda artist the chief story line. Art facilitates the questioning of its ability to influence and inspire action within a community. There is a large conflict between whether art should be politicised or whether it should be simply a source of gratification. Ishiguro both highlights the role of politicised art to be seen as detrimental to society through the impacts of the war, and to be seen as ineffectual and unsubstantial to changing events; the war and its subsequent effect would have occurred with Ono's propaganda, or without it. This theme bleeds into the scene regarding Kuroda and Ono, ultimately suggesting that the politicisation of art will result in the manufacturing of cruel actions. However, this idea is counteracted through the various scenes between Ono and his daughters who confront the idea of his role as a propagandist being highly involved. This allows both sides of arts argument to be explored facilitating the questioning of arts role. Art is therefore transcended into a defining moment of Japanese history, pre and post war life.
The novel is structured as a series of interwoven memories described by Masuji Ono. Ishiguro uses a variety of techniques to convey the fallibility of Ono's recollections to the audience, gradually revealing that Ono is an unreliable narrator and undermining the audience's faith in his story. For example, Ono makes frequent digressions into explanation unrelated topics and events during his narration, downplaying and concealing his cruel actions and misleading the audience as to the significance of unimportant topics. When Ono recounts interactions with family members, events are often referred to indirectly, or with incomplete information, disguising the truth of what has occurred. Because they are given incomplete and confusing information, it becomes more difficult for the audience to determine the extent of Ono's actions and the responsibility he bears for them.
Masuji Ono repeatedly reassesses events from his past throughout the novel, which suggests that he is constantly reconsidering his guilt about his actions and ultimately rethinking both the role of propaganda and the construction of memories. This process of reassessment highlights his status as an unreliable narrator, emphasising his fickle nature. This reflects the concept that memory is processed through an individual's consciousness, making it subjective to that particular person.
Similar to the theme of the politicisation of art, Ishiguro explores the role of responsibility through the narration of, Masuji Ono. This is identified through the conflict between actions and culpability that is created through Ono's inability to take responsibility. This is evident through his attempt at masking his actions and the subsequent consequences. An Artist of the Floating World explores the liability of leaders after the war and how many of them were not held responsible.
Alternatively, the concept of responsibility can be considered abstractly. This is done by placing emphasis on the reader to take responsibility in the determining the ending of the novel; is Ono guilty of his actions or is he simply exaggerating his importance and role in the war.
Post-World War II Japan was a time of great change and upheaval of traditional values. Japan's defeat in the war created a large divide between individuals and generations. In the novel, this clash of values is represented in the relationship between Masuji Ono and his grandson Ichiro. Ono represents the traditional values of pre-war Japan, while Ichiro represents post-war Japan and the new generation. Major changes explored include the changing attitudes towards the war, family hierarchy, geography of Japan and the increasing prevalence of Western culture.
This is presented through scenes such as between Ichiro and Ono when watching the Godzilla movie, Ichiro's obsession with cowboys and his lack of interest in Japanese heroes. Ishiguro does not present these changes as either good or bad, instead simply portrays them as reality, allowing the audience to determine their effects on society.
Women are portrayed throughout this novel through both the perspective of Ono and the perspective of the changing Japanese society. The concept of Japanese masculinity altered after Japan's defeat in the war, and whilst changes were made to the role of women, women's stereotypes were not changed drastically. This is explored throughout the novel through Noriko's quest for a husband.
Marriage negotiations are the central tenet to this novel. Through the marriage negotiations Ono reflects on his past facilitating the creation of the story. Overall, the marriage negotiations are the stimulus for Ono to reflect on his past memories. They further facilitate him taking responsibility for his actions as well as allow him to reconsider the changing values of Japan as perhaps positive. They allow for him to admit his mistakes, progressing the narrative and acting as a literary device.
The Nobel Foundation, which awarded Ishiguro the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, noted in its biography of the author that An Artist of the Floating World was the work that made him "a highly visible young writer."
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