Masuji Ono is an older Japanese man who was once a famous painter. Early in his career, and in the past of the novel, he left a position painting traditional Japanese paintings to learn from a well-known artist. There he captures the floating world, the transient beauty of nightlife. After meeting a nationalist who exposed him to the problems of poverty and corruption facing his country, Ono felt he could no longer use his talents so frivolously. Ono turned his focus toward paintings to inspire the public to take action to preserve and expand their nation. His propaganda posters became well-known, and his fame assured him that he had made the right choices in his career. After the war, having lost his wife and son, Ono finds himself in a very changed country. Now those who contributed to the war are viewed as culpable in its defeat. His career is a now a liability to his daughter's arranged marriage, and Ono must own up to his mistakes. He clings to the idea that whatever he did was done with great ambition and the best intentions.
Chishu Matsuda was a confident man in his younger years in the novel's past. He was passionate about art as well as his country and disapproved of the wealthy businessmen who had come to control Japan. Matsuda used his position with the Okada-Shingen Society to open the eyes of talented artists like Masuji Ono to the problems such as rampant poverty in Japan. These artists, once recruited, went on to create propaganda to fan the flames of nationalism and rising militarism. In old age and illness Matsuda resigns himself to the failure of his ambitions, lost with Japan's defeat. He believes that he has been only an ordinary man who could never have succeeded in such extraordinary circumstances as World War II. Still, he believes his aspirations to have a grand influence on his country had value.
Setsuko lost her mother and brother in the war, and she is worried about the marriage prospects of her younger sister and about her older, widowed father. She lives with her husband and son Ichiro in another part of Japan, so on her yearly visits to her father and sister she exerts her subtle influence to ensure their welfare. Always polite, she seems reluctant to correct her rather spoiled young son, but she has no qualms about going against her father's wishes, apologetically, if she thinks it is best for young Ichiro in her judgment. She is loyal to her husband, confident in his opinions even when they differ from those of her father.
Kuroda was once a close friend and student of the well-known artist Masuji Ono, whom he greatly admired. When Ono betrayed him, Kuroda was sent to prison for his art and judged unpatriotic in a time of heightened nationalism and tension during war. He was injured, and, his heart hardened by the suffering, he held a grudge against Ono whom he refused to meet later. On his release, Kuroda returns to painting, this time as a professor of art at a local college.
Shintaro is a painter who learned under Masuji Ono. The two were close friends and drinking partners at one time. Although grateful to his friend, Shintaro comes to regret following Ono's influence leading up to the war. When his career is threatened by the association, he seeks to deny he ever agreed with Ono about making propaganda rather than acknowledge his mistake.
Noriko Ono is a young Japanese woman for whom the war came at a difficult time, interrupting the common age when most women enter into marriage. She is frequently irritated with her elderly, widowed father, Masuji Ono. She worries about how the investigations for her engagement and arranged marriage are going, given that a prior attempt failed. She has lost her mother and brother in the war, and her older sister is married and lives far away. Stuck at home with her father, Noriko often vents her frustration on him.