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An Artist of the Floating World | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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An Artist of the Floating World | Plot Summary

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Becoming an Artist

Masuji Ono aspires to be an artist from a young age. Despite his father's disapproval of the dissolute life of artists, Ono is determined. When his father burns all of his artwork, Ono tells his mother that it only strengthens his resolve. In 1913 he moves to the city to work as an artist in the Takeda firm. He works long hours, churning out painting after painting in the traditional Japanese style. It isn't long before he longs to learn more, and he leaves Takeda's to be a student of Mori-san, convincing Shintaro, a fellow artist, to make the daring move with him. For many years the two worshipfully mimic Mori-san's style and throw themselves into the floating world: the beautiful but fleeting world of nighttime revels of geishas and drink and parties that Mori-san works to capture in his art.

New Awareness

Ono meets a man names Matsuda who opens his eyes to the problems facing Japan in the grips of powerful wealthy politicians. During a walk with Matsuda through a city slum, Ono encounters a group of boys in ragged clothes, clutching sticks, hiding what is likely a tortured animal behind their backs. Struck by the poverty of the slum, Ono begins to have moral qualms about the self-indulgence of his lifestyle and art. He creates a painting inspired by his experience in the slum. "Complacency" depicts the three boys contrasted with fat, laughing businessmen. When Shintaro sees the painting, which differs significantly from the style of their master, he calls Ono a traitor. Mori-san confiscates much of Ono's work, but Ono manages to hold on to several in his new style. Forced to leave Mori-san's, Ono creates propaganda for the China crisis, turning "Complacency" into "Eyes on the Horizon," which features three soldiers in front of three politicians. The words "Japan must move forward" urge national action and pride.

Turning to Propaganda

Ono's work becomes well known, and he acquires his own students and protégé. They spend many pleasant evenings at Migi-Hidari, a bar for artists and nationalists that Ono helped open, and at Mrs. Kawakami's across the street in the old pleasure district. Ono wins an award and feels vindicated in the artistic choices he has made. His students praise him and hang on his words. When a wealthy man named Sugimura dies, his family decides to sell his expansive home to someone they judge most worthy. Ono is gratified when they choose him. He attains a social standing that enables him to help his students get good jobs, and he becomes an adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. When he grows suspicious of his own student Kuroda's work, he reports him to the committee, expecting them to set the young man straight. Instead, the police arrest Kuroda and burn his work.

After the War

After the war, in which Ono's wife and son were killed, Ono's position changes drastically. Those who contributed to the Japanese military efforts of World War II, once heroes, are now seen as culpable in the nation's defeat and the deaths of so many of its young men. Some men of Ono's generation die by suicide in an effort to atone for their deeds, an action Ono understands. He packs his art away and focuses on his younger daughter's impending arranged marriage.

Setsuko, Ono's elder daughter, comes to visit. Worried about her sister Noriko's failed engagement from the previous year, she seems to suspect that her father's past is responsible. She urges him to take precautions as the go-between investigates both families. Ono tries to enjoy his time with his grandson Ichiro, but his daughters overrule his plans with the boy. The two do go to a monster movie together though, and the young boy covers his eyes. After their visit Ono heeds his daughter's advice and pays a visit to Matsuda, now quite infirm. Matsuda assures him he has nothing but good things to say about Ono, but he urges Ono to call on Kuroda. His old student is not at home when Ono tries to visit him. Instead, Kuroda's protégé Enchi invites him, only to ask him to leave when he finds out his name. Enchi tells Ono that because of him Kuroda was imprisoned and called a traitor. Kuroda refuses to meet with Ono.

At the meeting of the two families, which signals the beginning of their engagement, Dr. Saito mentions that he is acquainted with Kuroda. Ono takes the opportunity to face his past, publicly acknowledging his mistakes. The Saito family, who had been quite at ease, seems a bit startled at his declaration. Taro Saito asks Noriko if Ono is always so strict with himself, and she makes a joke at her father's expense, which thaws the formality and pressure of the evening for her.

When Setsuko visits the following year, she and Ichiro stay with Noriko and Taro, now married. Taro is optimistic about Japan's future as well as that of the company for which he works. They have recently dismissed the old management, and young, new leaders are taking the company forward. Although Ono expresses concern with this approach, Setsuko says her husband Suichi agrees with Taro in that taking a new direction and following American business practices is the way forward. Setsuko again frustrates Ono's efforts to indulge his grandson, refusing to allow the boy the taste of sake—Japanese rice wine—his grandfather promised. Ono objects to what he sees as an ignorance of the importance of male pride. Setsuko does not seem to recall asking her father to try to mitigate his past for Noriko's sake, but she has heard about something Ono spoke about at the engagement dinner. She is concerned that he spoke positively about the suicide of a patriotic composer who killed himself in an act of remorse for the role his songs played in inspiring men to go to war. She claims her father had no such influence and bears no guilt.

Matsuda expresses a similar sentiment when Ono visits him again. The old man claims that though they both had grand ambitions, they were only ordinary men who failed. Ono holds onto the belief that he can be proud of his intentions, whatever the outcome. Sitting outside the shiny new office buildings that have replaced his old pleasure district that was destroyed in the war, Ono observes the bustle and energy of the young workers. He offers his best wishes to the future of Japan.

An Artist of the Floating World Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Against his father's wishes, Ono chooses to be an artist.

Rising Action

2 Ono learns from Mori-san about the floating world.

3 Matsudo influences Ono to use his art politically.

4 Ono breaks with Mori-san to pursue his own style and agenda.

5 Ono creates nationalist propaganda and becomes famous.

6 Setsuko asks Ono not to ruin Noriko's engagement.


7 At Noriko's engagement meeting, Ono acknowledges his faults.

Falling Action

8 Ono accepts his past, believing he meant well at the time.


9 Ono wishes the next generation success.

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