An Artist of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

There was a pause, then my father said: ‘Tell me, Masuji, have you any idea what kind of a world artists inhabit?’

I remained silent, looking at the floor before me,.

’Artists’, my father’s voice continued, ‘live in squalor and poverty. They inhabit a world which gives them every temptation to become weak-willed and depraved.” (p. 46)

Well, that is not a very auspicious beginning for Masuji Ono, the artist of the floating world. From the very beginning he is advised not to become an artist by his father, who is fearful that there is no honor in it.

Honor is one of the many themes that Kazuo Ishiguro explores in An Artist of The Floating World. Masuji’s daughter, Setsuko, advises her father to be careful with his youngest daughter’s marriage negotiations. (Her first prospect was withdrawn on the pretext that their family was somehow inferior to Ono’s.)

‘You must forgive me, Father…I merely wished to see that it is perhaps wise if Father would take certain precautionary steps. To ensure misunderstandings do not arise. After all, Noriko is almost twenty-six now. We cannot afford many more disappointments such as last year’s. (p. 50)

And so, he visits old acquaintances and friends, trying to bridge misunderstandings. Resentments. Bitterness from the past. It is the kind of writing which makes me, at this time of my life, also look back and consider what I have done. What I haven’t done.

I must say I find it hard to understand how any man who values his self-respect would wish for long to avoid responsibility for his past deeds; it may not always be an easy thing, but there is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them. (p. 124-5)

Mori-san, who is the the teacher of Masuji and others, devoted his time and wealth to his students, with the goal of changing the “identity of painting as practiced in our city.” They explored the “floating world” – the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings.”

Surely the world is made up of more than dancing, singing, drinking, and story-telling, especially in the late forties after World War II. Mori-san confronts Ono one evening, about the paintings his pupil has produced which portray a far more serious theme, such as the one with three prominent politicians, and three poverty-stricken boys who had become soldiers, holding bayoneted rifles.

What is an artist’s responsibility? Is it to portray a world of beauty and light, or one of violent darkness? Ono says,

‘I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But now I feel it is time for me to progress to other things. Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world. (p. 179-80)

Within the exploration of art, and an artist’s role, we see Masuji Ono with his charming grandson, Ichiro, and his rather bossy, dismissive daughters. We see his colleagues, and his teachers, and the woman who opened a tea-house long before their city became consumed by restaurants. For me, the novel is as much a portrait of Japanese culture as it is a portrayal of art.

I loved it.

About the Author: Kazuo Ishiguro was born in NAgasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain in 1960. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature and has been translated into thirteen languages. An Artist of the Floating World was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the 19816 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; it has been translated into fourteen languages.

19 thoughts on “An Artist of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro”

    1. It is very good, as I find most of Ishiguro’s work to be. (Other than The Buried Giant, which is not a favorite of mine.) He has a way of writing so much more than a story. If you have not read The Unconsoled, I highly recommend that, too.

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  1. I was wondering what you would think of it. Would you love it as much as I do? I read it twice, and I recreated the special feeling he created every time I read it as I was savoring your review.

    It’s amazing how much his themes repeat.

    I must say that I love Ishiguro best when he brings me his themes with Japanese flair, that’s with this book and A Pale View of Hills. I repeat myself, but these two Ishiguro books are massively underrated.

    The matchmaking reminded me of The Makioka Sisters. I forgot how these two books have that peculiar Japanese item.

    Ono came to me in my second read, as someone I have so much compassion for. In a way, he is like Ryder. These man and their sons or grandsons. The painting that Boris, Ryder’s son, is doing in The Unconsoled, and if I remember, Ono’s grandson also painted, and played Indians and Cowboys. The more I think, the more I believe that The Unconsoled is where the germ or essence of his other titles are. With the exception of The Buried Giant. That one is different and not. The setting and time period sets it apart somehow.

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    1. How interesting that The Unconsoled is where the germ, or essence, of his other titles are. I never considered that! I know that you liked The Pale View of Hills very much as well, which somehow did not strike me as forcefully. But, An Artist of The Floating World is so much more than just about art. It told me of families, and regrets, and longings, and structures in Japan which I still know so little about. Thank you so much for giving it to me, Silvia. It is a valuable addition to my collection.

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  2. Fantastic review! I’d forgotten the subplot about finding a match for Noriko. It’s a subtle reminder that life goes on, past war and mistakes, and we ought to be careful when choosing our battles (or our heroes and ideals). Might try to re-read this one if I have time this year…

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    1. Mistakes, especially ones committed in the past, are so troublesome to me. How I long to erase them, the older I get, as if I could make my life perfect. But, there are things I’ve said, things I’ve done, which I wish I hadn’t. There’s an old story between my son and I, where he insisted there was something in his shoe while we were taking a walk, and I insisted there wasn’t. When I finally deigned to look, there was a smashed caterpillar against his heel. I feel terrible about it even now, because it shows how unsympathetic I have been at times. Well, I digress far from Ishiguro’s work, but clearly he has got me thinking. And, I didn’t even have to go through anything as terrible as a war!

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      1. Wow, that exact thing happened with my mom and little sister! (In her case though, it was a slug.) My mom also still feels bad about it. Hindsight is perfect sight, of course, and I’m glad to know she’s human, too… 🙂

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    1. It was not a fast read for me, Nadia, even though it is not a lengthy book. I took some time to dwell on its themes, to try to grasp all that he was saying, and I feel even now that it would be worth several rereads.

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    1. It is such a gift to have my passion for reading back again, as 2019 was an abysmal year for me in terms of loving what I read. Of course, it helps a lot to be reading Japanese literature, and in the company of fellow readers/bloggers such as yourself.

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  3. Read this a few years ago & recall enjoying it, although I loved his short story collection Nocturnes. Vaguely interesting fact my daughter is at the same university he studied BA English and Philosophy at & was also made an honorary Doctor of Letters.

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  4. I have loved several of his books and need to read this one. It’s actually been quite a while since I picked up one of his books and I’m pretty sure I have this one on my shelves. Great review!

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  5. He does have a way of sweeping us off our feet, so to speak, doesn’t he?

    I remember feeling nostalgic somehow, though I have never known this floating world. I have never revisited any of his books so far (there’s always something to read, isn’t there?), but this might be one of the ones I do if I ever were to.

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