an artist of the floating world by kazuo ishuguro

Posted on March 22, 2009


Ono refuses to be an artist of the floating world, yet he goes back to being one. As Japan embraces the future, Ono can only sit back and watch while the Old Japan fades away.

artist-of-the-floating-world1‘This book must be the greatest mystery I have ever read’ was my first reaction upon finishing The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro.

That’s because even as I turned the last page, I still didn’t know what the heck the story was about; what the characters were thinking; what the point of all the meandering was.

There was hardly any plot, no climax, no catharsis. Page after page, I followed the day-to-day life of Masuji Ono, an aging Japanese artist, immediately following his country’s defeat in World War II. Supposedly, I was inside his head, but did he truly know himself?

As he set about improving his daughter’s value as a wife, he gave me glimpses of his journey as an artist: as a mass-producer of ‘typical’ Japanese artworks sold to foreign clients; as apprentice to a master artist of the floating world; and as political artist and revolutionary official.

Scenes floated into one another. Flashbacks were flashbacks to more flashbacks. Sometimes, I got confused about which part of his life I was now reading about. Was he a young man, trying to finish enough paintings to meet the quota in a tiny attic by oil-light? Or was he at the height of his career, at Migi-Hidari, a pleasure district frequented by artists, writers, and thinkers; soaking in the atmosphere, the sake, the sight of waitresses in kimonos, and the sound of boisterous conversations? Or was he by his favorite restaurant, a survivor of American bombings amidst the ruins?

At one time, I thought that the artist of the floating world was not Ono but Ishiguro, so fluid did he make the narrative… I was on a raft or a boat floating past watercolor scenes I could never return to or change.

To be an artist of the floating world is to capture fleeting beauty. In Ono’s world, that beauty is often found in the pleasure districts and geisha houses… Tonight, the lamplight may fall on a woman’s cheek with a golden glow; tomorrow, it may illuminate a different mood, a more vivacious one compared with the sad loveliness of the other night.

in the floating world, every night, every hour, every minute is different. To capture beauty is to capture that which is lost forever. To be an artist of the floating world is to be the best kind of hedonist… and artist.

Ono turned his back on this world to create political art (aka propaganda) that helped fuel Japan’s desire for conquest. He meant well, but when Japan lost the war, Ono faced the shame of being part of that failure.

As Ono rambled and meandered, around him was family turmoil. His daughters and in-laws despised him and often criticized him. There was shame, as his colleagues committed suicide to redeem themselves. There was guilt as well as denial. Ono may not be the noble and highly respected artist he believed himself to be. There was also sorrow together with naiveté over Japan’s changing world and the Japanese’s ready acceptance of Western modes of thoughts and principles.

As I write my impressions of the book, I realize something: the punchline!

All these insights, from a book where little it seemed was revealed… But now I realize that Ono’s family was probably just humoring him, despite never being disrespectful in tone, manner, and language; and that Ono actually committed numerous betrayals, despite his protestations that he never did anything wrong.

Japan was supposedly sunk deep in guilt and sadness over the war–yet what was it so gloomy about? In the book, Japan was sad and guilty alright but not over the atrocities the nation was responsible for in other countries but over the loss of the nation’s face globally.

It took a while (two weeks) for me to get the book, but get it I did. The last insight may even be an inside look at the author’s inward-looking mindset regarding WWII and not just a general picture of the Japanese psyche post war (as represented in the book).

Damn, Ishiguro is good! Subtle as hell, but with an impact that catches you unaware.

Posted in: japanese