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An Artist of the Floating World | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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An Artist of the Floating World | Symbols


Smell of Burning

The scent of smoke symbolizes trauma. It calls to mind several painful memories for Masuji Ono. The first is the smell of burning when Ono's father destroyed his artwork and forbade him to follow his dream of becoming an artist. Ono's mother denied smelling anything. The second is the smell of burning artwork again, this time at his student Kuroda's house. Ono is disturbed and surprised to find a pile of burning paintings. He claims he thought the police would only speak to Kuroda, based on Ono's tip about suspected unpatriotic activity on the part of the young man. In his final visit to Matsuda, Ono admits that the smell of burning is most distasteful to him because "not so long ago it meant bombings and fire," some of which killed his wife and damaged his home.


Lanterns are the symbol of the floating world. They represent the fleeting beauty and warmth of nightlife as well as the transience of the traditional way of life in Japan, which vanishes after the war. Lanterns are the old-fashioned, welcoming source of soft light at Mrs. Kawakami's. Within their spheres of light Masuji Ono is embraced. As a symbol of the floating world, lanterns often appear in Mori-san's work, either within the picture or as the implied light source for the subject in the painting. With the end of the war, the occupation, and the rapid modernization of Japan, traditional light sources like lanterns vanish just as the pleasure district and the floating world disappear when the sleek office buildings arise.

Ono's Home

Masuji Ono's home, bestowed upon him by the venerable Akira Sugimura, symbolizes Ono's social standing. He takes a great deal of pride in being judged the worthiest to receive the home in a contest of character of sorts by the Sugimura family. Sugimura, a respected pillar of the community and man of great wealth, built a large, well-appointed home, far larger than Ono could have afforded on his own. Ono attains the home, just as he attains a prestigious reputation as a famous artist, before the war. After the war his social standing is left in ruins, as is the home. The home is damaged with bombs and cannot be properly rebuilt for lack of supplies just as Ono's status is left battered and without hope of repair to its former glory.


Gardens symbolize tranquility. They are restful places that seem to bring Masuji Ono peace. Conversely the damage done to Ono's garden in the bombings disrupts any calm he might find there for a time. Noriko's critique of his gardening work is especially upsetting. Also, it is flowers that Ono begins painting when he returns to art after so many years. It brings him pleasure to paint cultivated nature.

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