Although Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese author his works belong to British literature. He was born in 1954 in Nagasaki but moved to England when he was six years old. He writes in English. Two of his well-known books deal with Japanese topics.
An Artist of the Floating World was published in 1986.
The Japanese artist Ono Masuji is now an old man. He looks back on his career as he had spent several years as a traditional ukiyo-e painter. Ukiyo 浮世 means floating world. It stands for the momentariness of enjoyment; the main motifs are geishas, actors, scenes of theater, brothel, sexual fantasies, amusement and the like.
The present timeline of the story goes from October 1948 to Juni 1950: it is the time after Japans unconditional surrender and now under American occupation. Japan had been totally destroyed. Now the reconstruction of Japan shows its first fruits.
The personal story begins as Onos daughter seems to have no chance to marry an adequate mate. The marriage deal has failed once and the second is difficult. It is likely due to Onos past.
In the 1930‘s Ono dedicated his skills to the military regime and the ideology of Japan‘s expansion policy. He became an influential artist with many followers.
At present Ono is using his chances to reflect his burden. He becomes regretful and apologizes for his role during the 30‘s and 40‘s. He talks to his relatives and speaks frankly about his debt. During the marriage arrangement meeting (miai) of his daughter he bursts out with his story in front of his and the fiancé‘s family. Ono feels deep grief about his role in the expansion politics of Japan and the overall destruction.
The Ono family lives in a Japanese town, which was destroyed. Ono has been often visiting a traditional Japanese bar in the former red-light district. Here only the so-called Migi-Hidari is left. The surrounding is a debris field. The mistress will soon give up and then there will be nothing left of the traditional amusement district any more.
Signs of changes are everywhere: the young Japanese generation, all eager business men, economy growth turns to be the new religion thinks Ono.
His family of three generations is changing as well. His son-in-law is belonging to the new generation who accuses the elder men responsible for the War. Some of them took responsibility by suicide, some hide.
Onos memories of his youth and his painting career are detailed and colourful. The reader gets much insight of the ukiyo-e painting tradition.
Ono walked his way against great odds. Once struggling against his father, who had burned all his early paintings, against two of his former teachers and even against his colleagues or followers. The key scenes are full of emotion, it is a story of power and destruction.
Paintings are burning more than one time. Ono himself will betray a follower, but the effects are not under his control any more.
In the end Ono is not able to compensate his past, but he regrets deeply. The author Kazuo Ishiguro is not judging. The reader has to make his own picture.
An Artist of the Floating World is worth reading as a novel of Japanese changing tradition to modernity and coming to terms with the past.
(ukiyo-e by Kitagawa Utamaro)