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An Artist of the Floating World

Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World

Kazuo Ishiguro

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An Artist of the Floating World Summary

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An Artist of the Floating World (1986), a novel by Nobel-winner Kazuo Ishiguro, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; it also took home the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. Retired artist Masuji Ono’s career has delivered him prestige, but he questions his status. Due to his political position—working as a nationalist creator of propaganda for the government during World War II—Ono doubts his status after his daughter’s marriage negotiations suffer. Identity is a major theme, and Ono spends much of the novel trying to figure out his own identity and his place in his family and in the post-war world. He visits with other artists, even Kuroda, whom he feels he wronged. Ono had had doubts about Kuroda’s loyalty, which he shared with the authorities; as a result, Kuroda had been arrested. Even though Ono decides that his actions were wrong, his family doesn’t seem to think so—or they don’t care, as they enjoy the comforts his prestige provides.


Ono wonders if he really deserves his house. It once belonged to a famous artist, and he won it at auction. It wasn’t an auction for money, but rather for prestige. Now retired, Ono struggles with family matters. His youngest daughter, Noriko, was engaged to marry but the other family broke the contract. Ono presumes this is because the other family is in a different class, but his daughters are concerned the issue stems from Ono’s background.


This uncertainty launches the inspection into Ono’s past actions. He was an artist of what was called “the floating world.” Other denizens of this world included geishas, alcohol, entertainment, and romance. More and more in the 1930s, Japan tended toward nationalism; that’s when Ono shifted from creating art to creating propaganda. Ono supported nationalism, as well as the expansion of a Japanese empire.


In the years following World War II, nationalistic views such as those Ono exhibits are no longer popular. His own son-in-law is angry with Ono’s generation for sending young soldiers to die in the war while staying safe at home. Some military leaders have committed suicide, or seppuku, to atone for this as well as for their own actions in the war.


Ono examines his own actions through flashbacks and visits with old friends, artists, and comrades. Ultimately, he realizes that he played a part in what became a national disaster. One night, when his family is dining with the family of a suitor for Noriko’s hand in marriage, Ono admits that his art, his propaganda, may have negatively influenced the Japanese during the war. Though he has come to terms with his own past and admitted the impact his actions had on his family, Ono isn’t yet finished trying to clear his conscience.


He embarks next on a mission to visit his former student, Kuroda, who was imprisoned during the war. Kuroda refuses to absolve Ono despite the latter’s apologies and admission that his actions led to the former’s arrest. Ono, desperate to have someone not only agree with him that his actions caused harm but also forgive him years later, turns to his daughter. However, she refuses to see him as anything other than the prestigious artist. Finally, he connects with a former colleague, Matsuda.


Matsuda was responsible for bringing Ono into the nationalist party. Together, they come to terms with how they impacted Japan and the Japanese during the war. They also conclude in retrospect that while their actions were obviously negative, at the time, they thought they were doing the right thing. In one another’s empathy, they find redemption, which is another theme of the novel. The redeeming quality of their actions is that they tried something daring instead of taking the safe route. As artists, they ultimately decide that this is worth some good will.


In addition to the awards mentioned, Ishiguro won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize in 1982 and the Booker Prize in 1989. His work was published in the Granta Best Young British Novelists issue in 1983 and in 1993. He became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1995, and in 1998 he became a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His book Never Let Me Go was included on the list 100 Greatest English Language Novels since 1923 by Time magazine, and he was included on The Times’ list of the 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945. Ishiguro has written novels, short story collections, short fiction, screenplays, and lyrics. In addition to An Artist of the Floating World, his most notable works are The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go.

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