[Error: unknown template qotd]An Artist of the Floating World
by Kazuo Ishiguro
(This is the text from a paper I wrote for History of Civilization II class. I highly recommend this book to everyone. This post contains spoilers.)
A reader just beginning to read An Artist of the Floating World
might wonder why the author chose this as the title. The meaning of “the floating world” is defined when the main character, Ono, and his sensei, Mori-san, are discussing Mori-san’s visiting friend, Gisaburo. Gisaburo appears at first to be a jovial man, but Ono sees underneath the guest’s affable exterior to the sad and ruined man underneath. Mori-san explains Gisaburo’s enjoyment of the pleasure district. For one night Gisaburo could enjoy alcohol and women and believe that he was still loved and talented. In the morning, he would no longer believe these things, but that did not diminish the meaning of the night before (pg. 150). Mori-san called these fleeting moments “the floating world.” Mori-san is an artist of the floating world, but as the reader continues through the book, it becomes evident the floating world is not confined to just the pleasure district.
Ono seems to understand that a pupil learning from his sensei then developing ideas of his own and moving on is the natural order of things. He says, “…it is this same leading pupil who is most likely to see shortcomings in the teacher’s work, or else develop views of his own divergent from those of his teacher,” (pg. 142). Mori-san had rejected traditional Japanese painting styles of heavy black outlines, instead opting for a more European style (pg. 141). This gave Mori-san a distinctive style that he insisted his pupils emulate. Ono believes, “a good teacher should accept this tendency – indeed, welcome it as a sign that he has brought his pupil to a point of maturity,” (pg. 142) but concedes, “the emotions involved can be quite complicated,” (pg. 142).
Ono’s departure from his sensei is particularly painful. While exploring the slums with his friend Matsuda, Ono sees three boys dressed in rags torturing an animal with sticks (pg. 167). He uses this image in a painting, posing the boys in traditional kendo stances and juxtaposes it with an image of “three, fat, well-dressed men sitting in a comfortable bar laughing together,” (pg. 168). The painting suggests the young revolting against the old in order to establish their own honor. Mori-san does not see Ono’s divergence from his style as Ono coming into his own as a painter. The painting, and the rejection of Mori-san’s aesthetic, angers Mori-san and Ono is forced to leave the villa (pg. 180).
Ono is frightened for his future when he leaves Mori-san’s villa, but he eventually finds success and earns a great deal of respect for his patriotic work leading up to and during the war. He returns to Mori-san’s villa sixteen years after his departure and while viewing it from a distance tells the reader what eventually became of his old sensei. The popular aesthetic had turned away from the European style and Mori-san’s reputation diminished to the point where he began illustrating magazines to earn his living (pg. 203). The tone Ono uses to recount this is smug. He is in the prime of life, popular, well-respected, and has pupils of his own while Mori-san’s time had passed.
As with all things in the floating world, Ono’s prime cannot last forever. After the war, he carries a stigma about him. The popularity and recognition of his work supporting Japan’s war effort has transformed into disgrace and distrust. Ono’s pupils begin to defy and deny him. His old pupil, Shintaro, asks Ono to write a letter to Shintaro’s prospective employer confirming that he had “openly expressed [his] disagreement” with the work he was expected to do for Ono (pg. 103). Ono advises that Shintaro should “face up to the past” (pg. 105), but Shintaro rejects the advice and insists Ono write the letter. Kuroda, a former pupil of Ono’s and a sensei in his own right, simply refuses to talk to Ono at all (pp. 77 & 114).
Ono experiences changes in his standing with his family members as well. After the war, Noriko complains about taking care of her father. By this time, her mother has passed away and Noriko seems to consider sharing the home with her father a considerable burden. She tells Setsuko, “Father takes a lot of looking after now he’s retired…You’ve got to keep him occupied or he starts to mope,” (pg. 13). The role Ono filled as caregiver has shifted to one in need of care.
Ono worries that the stigma of his professional life is bleeding over into the lives of his family. After Noriko’s first arrangement falls through, Ono begins to believe that it is her relation to him that is the problem. On Setsuko’s suggestion, he visits Matsuda to ask him to “answer any queries which may come your way with delicacy…Particularly, that is, with regards to the past,” (pg. 94). While trying to make a good impression on the parents of his daughter’s suitor, he says,
“There are some who would say it is people like myself who are responsible for the terrible things that happened to this nation of ours. As far as I am concerned, I freely admit I made many mistakes. I accept that much of what I did was ultimately harmful to our nation, that mine was part of an influence that resulted in untold suffering for our own people…All I can say is at the time I acted in good faith. I believed in all sincerity I was achieving good for my fellow countrymen. But as you see, I am not now afraid to admit I was mistaken.” (pp 123-124)
Long after the miai, Setsuko suggests Ono may have overcompensated in this admission of guilt (pg. 191), but neither she nor her sister understand that Ono’s admission had nothing to do with his work and everything to do with turning Kuroda‘s name in to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. Kuroda is an acquaintance of the Saitos, a family who, at least in retrospect, did not support the pre-war government. Taro says, “We needed new leaders with a new approach appropriate to the world today,” (pg. 185). The family needed to be assured that Ono would not turn their family into the authorities the way he had Kuroda. His admission of guilt eases the Saitos and the remainder of the miai continues successfully.
Behind the layers of stories about Ono’s family and career is the changing backdrop of the city around him. The pleasure district of Ono’s youth has been rebuilt and in its place modern office buildings and parking lots now stand (pg. 205). Ono’s home is old-fashioned, spacious, and reflects the prestige of the people who live there. When Ono comes into possession of it, the family of the man who formerly lived there make sure the house is well cared for (pg. 10). This stands in sharp contrast to Ono’s daughters’ attitude toward the house. They opt instead for apartment blocks, preferring the “’modern’ qualities” of the Western style kitchens and bathrooms (pg. 156).
As Ono continues to tell the stories of his life, the reader slowly begins to understand the changes that have occurred in his world. The times he has lived through are as ephemeral as a night in the pleasure district depicted in Mori-san’s paintings. In his personal life, he marries, has children, becomes a grandfather, and a widower. In his professional life, he churns out paintings for Master Takeda’s firm (pp. 65-66), is accepted as a student at Mori-san’s villa, rebels and strikes off on his own, becomes a teacher, and watches his own students rebel. The moments in Ono’s life are fleeting, but the changing perspective does not diminish the importance or impact of any of them. In this way, Ono is the real artist of the floating world.