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 (Her first prospect was withdrawn on the pretext that their family was somehow inferior to Ono’s.)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.