An Artist of the Floating World | Study Guide

Kazuo Ishiguro

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An Artist of the Floating World | Themes

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Memory Is Unreliable

Masuji Ono believes that there is no artist who can accurately capture their own likeness in a self-portrait, and neither can a writer impartially recall the past. The novel revolves around Ono's life, told by himself, but he retells his story imperfectly. He repeatedly concedes that the conversations he recounts may have not gone exactly as he recalls. There are even direct contradictions to his account of events. A pivotal moment in the novel is Setsuko's admonition to take precautions about his past. This prompts Ono to visit Matsuda and Kuroda, yet later Setsuko claims she has no memory of saying that to her father. Readers are left to wonder if Ono has misremembered events, seeking to mitigate the damage of his past out of his own anxiety or guilt, or if Setsuko doesn't remember or is being deceptive for some reason. In either case the events of the novel are indefinite, involving many long-past conversations, characters, and places, all altered with the passage of time.

The author also uses the structure and diction of the novel to convey the theme of memory. The nonlinear pattern of the plot—jumping around chronologically from Ono's present to youth to glory days to present again—is similar to stream-of-consciousness writing. However, the author deliberately uses this nonchronological plot to mimic not only thought patterns but also an elderly mind. Ono finds himself in rooms without knowing why he entered them and stares off into space, a habit his younger daughter interprets as laziness but is more likely a common symptom of old age.

As he enters the final stages of life, Ono's memories occupy his thoughts more and more, and they are colored by his need to justify his actions to himself. The suggestion of self-delusion or self-deception appears early in the novel. Ono admits that conversations he recalls may not have happened as he recalls them. He thinks he said a particular thing but admits he may not have. He also makes excuses for various people, trying to explain to the reader why Mori-san was so haughty while others were not, portraying Noriko as unjustifiably irritated and rude to him. Perhaps the strongest evidence for self-deception, though, is what is not included in Ono's thoughts. He says almost nothing about the deaths of his wife and son. They are mentioned but without much emotion and almost no detail. Ono seems to repress his most painful memories while allowing lesser traumas to resurface over the course of the novel.

Memory and nostalgia often go hand in hand, and the novel is suffused with wistful recollections of life in Japan before the war, of Ono's best years as an artist. Nostalgia paints the past with a rosy hue and glosses over difficulties. For example, Ono recalls giving Kenji his first taste of sake, Japanese rice wine, but not the moment he learned his only son had been killed in the war. He remembers how his wife always laughed about their disagreements but can't recall the substance of their fights. The most nostalgic memory that occupies Ono's thoughts is that of the pleasure district before the war. He fondly recalls so many nights at the Migi-Hidari drinking with his students or at Mrs. Kawakami's in the lantern light. This vanished world holds incredible nostalgia for the artist.

Worthiness Is a Matter of Constantly Shifting Perception

Worthiness based on ever-changing cultural standards and ethics is a social judgment in the novel. The author explores the impact that shifting values have upon the life of one man. Masuji Ono feels worthiest, most honorable, at two distinct moments in the novel, both when he is publicly judged as worthy of special treatment and acknowledgement. The first is winning the contest for his home. The Sugimura family investigates the characters and reputation of four candidates before selecting the person they find worthiest of the privilege of buying their late father's home. It is something Ono feels very proud of, and the author begins the novel with this example of worthiness to introduce the theme. The second instance of public recognition that makes Ono feel worthy is when he wins the Shigeta Foundation Award for his work. It means the most to him, of all his other honors and awards, because it is the most prestigious.

Another example of social judgments of worthiness is the practice of arranged marriages. A neutral party investigates both families to determine if they are on the same footing in terms of education, reputation, characters, and class. Presumably, the investigator also looks into anything in their pasts that might cause the other family embarrassment by way of association. When Noriko's first engagement falls through, the family gives the politest reason for backing out: they have determined that their son is not worthy of Noriko.

Judgments of worth extend to Ono's paintings and his identity as an artist. These two are based on fluctuating social values. Before the war Ono's paintings, including propaganda, earn accolades. He earns a reputation as a famous artist. Dr. Saito says it is an honor to have Ono as a neighbor. All of these perceptions of his art change after the war. Now Ono's work is judged harmful, partially responsible for the downfall of the nation. He packs his art away, former students repudiate him, and even his own family is ashamed of his work.

Intentions: Justification and Self-Delusion

Masuji Ono places a great deal of weight on his intentions as he reflects on his past. Whatever guilt he might feel about having some role in Japan's defeat, he mitigates with the comforting thought that he meant well at the time. He was acting, he insists, on what his convictions at the time compelled him to do, telling Mori-san that it is his conscience that compels him to move beyond painting beautiful paintings and Japanese nightlife and use his art for the good of his country. Later, he assures himself that "there is ... no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith." In this way intentions become part of self-delusion. Note that no other characters bring up Ono's intentions as considerations when speaking of his past. In fact, Setsuko says the reason he shouldn't feel guilty about his past is that his work wasn't really widely known anyway. She suggests no one was influenced one way or the other by it.

The author shows a progression in Ono's use of intentions over the course of the novel. In the first part of the novel he uses his intentions to justify what he did. He goes from using his intentions as a shield from blame to a badge of honor. At the miai, the first meeting between Ono's daughter and her potential husband, Ono is almost self-congratulatory in declaring that he is not too proud to admit his mistakes, especially ones so well-meant. Toward the end of the novel Ono believes his intentions actually make him superior to others. He had aspirations, ones he had the courage and conviction to act upon, where others did not. Although he failed, he believes he is still better than those who never tried.

The author contrasts Ono's use of intentions as a defense with the view of other characters. Matsuda seems to concede that intentions matter, but he is also willing to admit that they don't change outcomes. He tells Ono that although they had grand aspirations and used their work for their country, they were just ordinary men who failed. A further contrast, Suichi doesn't put any weight in intentions. Quite the contrary, he believes the intentions of those who sent young men to war make them guilty for the deaths of the soldiers. He bitterly claims that the ones who should have paid the price for the inclinations to war are still walking around free.

Loyalty: Political and Personal

The author plays with the theme of loyalty through nationalism and a parallel microcosm of mentors and protégés. Loyalty to country is the emotional motivation behind the propaganda Masuji Ono creates. His famous poster claims, "Japan must move forward." He helped establish the Migi-Hidari as a meeting place for nationalists, enlisting the support of artists and journalists, all "producers of work unflinchingly loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor," encouraging "a finer, more manly spirit ... in Japan." Ono fancies himself such an authority on proper national loyalty that he takes a position as adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. His suspicions lead to Kuroda's arrest and branding as a traitor. Even after the war, Ono insists that "those who fought and worked loyally for [their] country ... cannot be called war criminals" despite what the younger generation like Suichi might think. Enchi, of the same mind as Suichi, claims accusingly that, "we all know who the real traitors were."

On a smaller scale loyalty to a sensei or art mentor is equally fraught with conviction and emotion. When Ono asks the Tortoise to leave the Takeda firm with him, the Tortoise is shocked. He never considered being so disloyal. When Sasaki dares to paint in a style that departs from Mori-san's, the other artists kick him out and refer to him as the traitor. Ono too is labeled a traitor when he follows his convictions and creates a painting about the boys he saw in the slum. Shintaro takes one look at the painting and tells Ono unequivocally, "You are a traitor." Rather than be bound by loyalty to follow another without thinking, Ono suggests loyalty must be earned. He tells the Tortoise, "Master Takeda doesn't deserve the loyalty of the likes of you and me." He scoffs at those who follow without thinking for themselves in the name of loyalty.

Ono's loyalties are split by the war. He betrays his own student Kuroda in the paranoia of nationalism leading up to the war.

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