Japanese history is a rich tapestry of events, and it’s intriguing to read books that can capture it in a fictional sense. I recently picked up An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro has established himself as a talented storyteller and I was drawn to the novel because of my fascination with Japan. The book features a post WW2 Japan recovering from its scars and looking towards the future.
The story focuses on famous painter Masuji Ono and his family. In his retirement, Ono has grown used to tending his garden, being visited by his daughters and reminiscing on the past. Ono is a proud man who dedicated everything to his art in the years before World War Two. His reflections cover the ‘Bridge of Hesitation’ and Japan’s pleasure district known as the Migi-Hidari.
In the present, Ono works to arrange a suitable marriage for his daughter Noriko. He also spends time with his grandson Ichiro and tries to hold onto the serenity he’s found. Ono’s narration drifts between past and present, coming across as scattered as you’d expect from an old man looking back on his life. It’s a clever storytelling device by Ishiguro.
I enjoyed the image of the ‘floating world,’ which according to Ono, were the taverns and pleasure houses of the Migi-Hidari. For a night, everything was illuminated, and then it disappeared into the morning. It’s a great metaphor for how an artist tries to capture the fleeting beauty of the world around them. This is summed up beautifully by Ono’s teacher Moris-san.
“I was very young when I prepared those prints. I suspect the reason I couldn’t celebrate the floating world was that I couldn’t bring myself to believe in its worth. Young men are often guilt-ridden about pleasure, and I suppose I was no different. I suppose I thought that to pass away one’s time in such places, to spend one’s skills celebrating things so intangible and transient, I suppose, I thought it all rather wasteful, all rather decadent. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubts its very validity.”
Ishiguro infuses his protagonist with a wistful strength that’s different to other characters in the novel. Ono’s daughters Noriko and Setsuko are both strong-willed, despite the traditional role of women in Japanese society. The peacefulness of Ono’s retirement is juxtaposed against the violence of Japanese militarism.
Ishiguro creates gorgeous scenery with his writing. It’s easy to picture a lantern-lit tavern after reading his words. There’s also a minimalistic approach that makes the book stronger.
An Artist of the Floating World celebrates transient beauty and the act of rebirth. Ono is left feeling hopeful for Japan’s future and so is the reader. If you have any interest in history or Japan, then I’d recommend reading this book. You can purchase it from Amazon now.