“The Floating World” (ukiyo) as a Japanese expression has traditionally referred to evening pleasure activities, for men, during a particular period of Japanese history, the Tokugawa, or Edo, period 1603 – 1868.  It is best known in the West through the paintings and woodblock prints (the ukiyo-e) that came from and represented these “”transitory, illusory” pleasures, originally to the Japanese public and later, through the fascination of French Impressionist painters such as Degas, Manet, and Monet,  to the western world.

Kazuo Ishiguro in his novel An Artist of the Floating World (1986,) appropriates the term to represent the art and attitudes of painters of the 1930s, as Japan is embarking on its colonial expansion in China, decades after the classical period.  More interestingly the floating world also represents the transience of memory in the world at large, how we humans see and present ourselves to others, how we try, and fail, to examine ourselves, to ask ourselves how we have lived the values we have thought ourselves to hold.  This double floating is served on the wisps and confusions of Ishiguro’s own floating “unreliable narrator” style of writing.

An Artist of the Floating World is Ishiguoro’s second  novel, preceding  by three years The Remains of the Day for which he is most famous. Born in Nagasaki, Japan but raised in England from the age of five, in a Japanese-speaking household, both early novels are imaginative explorations of his birth country’s culture and history.  While the first, A Pale View of the Hills, 1982, used his family’s Japan-England experience as a starting point, in An Artist of the Floating World he stays completely in Japan in the years between 1933 and 1950.

Most reviewers have gushed with praise, with insight and close reading. For readers who are unsteady on uncertain platforms, however, those who prefer a time-line with dates which can be set in order, even if offered in flashbacks and flash-forwards, An Artist of the Floating World may give less guidance than is preferred. Though the book is divided into four sections of certain dates, October of 1948, April and November of 1949, and June of 1950, the events in the story arise from, and give rise to each other, in sequences not always clear.

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Masuji Ono, the “artist” is the first person narrator, informally addressing the reader, as though sitting in a big chair unfolding the story as it occurs to him. He begins in October of 1948 describing his house, signaling the uncertainty that will come by the opening phrase, “If on a sunny day you climb the steep path … to the Bridge of Hesitation.”  Though we aren’t aware of it for some time, we have entered into the transience of memory, not only of events or people, but the narrator’s own sense of self.

He tells us the house we might see was far beyond his means but was sold to him on the basis of a “character competition,” by the family of “the city’s most respected and influential man.” He tells us more than once he had, and has, very little interest in status yet he also tells us that he won the character competition; that he was a gifted art student; an honored sensei to others; that young men made much of the recommendations he had given on their behalf.

It doesn’t seem so much a false modesty as Ishiguro’s interpretation of the sometimes maddening (to a westerner) Japanese circumspection and politeness;  demurring against praise not aa a means to hear it repeated but from a life-long core belief: I am not worthy.  This circumspection is mixed with the now settled understanding, made famous by another Japanese, Akira Kurosawa, in “Rashōmon, the 1950 movie based on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’ short story, of the unreliability of witness and memory.

What makes Ono’s story more than ordinarily interesting is the never quite solid center of, if not war crimes, at least war-time behavior, war-time betrayal of others.

Whatever he did as the “official adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities” we never hear him come out and say, directly,  “Yes I did this. I was wrong.”  As the narrative nears such a possibility it slips away to a friend who says “I realize there are now those who would condemn the likes of you and me for the very things we were once proud to have achieved.”  More than once, Ono tells himself, that if done with good intention, no blame can be attached to bad actions.  As though to pull him back from the precipice of acknowledgement.

The self investigation, as uncertain and wavering as it is, is propelled by a family matter. His oldest daughter, Setsuko,  is married to a returned veteran, angry at the betrayal of those who brought on the war. Responding to his father-in-law’s memory of his only son who died “courageously” in Manchuria, Suichi  foreshadows the problem in the heart of the family

” … what really makes me angry is … Those who sent the likes of Kenji out there to die these brave deaths, where are they today?  They’re carrying on their lives, much the same as ever.  Many are more successful than before, behaving so well in front of the Americans, the very ones who led us to this disaster…. that’s what makes me angry.  Brave young men die for stupid causes, and the real culprits are still with us.  Afraid to show themselves for what they are, to admit their responsibility.”

The couple has an eight year old son, five years into the American occupation, devoted the Lone Ranger and Popeye, not the traditional samurai warrior.  The second daughter, Noriko, age twenty-six still lives with her father.  A possible marriage arrangement had earlier collapsed for unknown, but suspected reasons: it was not her lack of prettiness, not observations of bad housekeeping, but her father’s possible war-time activities.

As a second marriage arrangement begins, “detectives” are expected to be making inquiries.  At the request of his daughters he seeks out old friends to ask them to handle questions of their mutual past with “the utmost delicacy.”

As one recollection after another begin to make a whole past, it turns out that Ono, as a favored student of a ‘floating world” master, had been persuaded by another student of the importance of Japan’s coming greatness and had struck out on his own painterly style and themes, betraying the master. Leaving the vacuous and transient and beauty for beauty’s sake and beginning with paintings of social outrage he comes to be a sought after war-propagandist , taking on the beliefs of  the Young Officer’s revolt of 1936 seeking to overthrow the corrupt civilian government and return power to the Emperor-God.

His recollections are of the past.  His life at the time of telling is post-war Japan.  Cites are in ruins. (Besides the culminating atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sixty five other Japanese cities were saturation bombed, some as much as 90% destroyed.) War criminals are being prosecuted; some of them hung.  News of Japanese atrocities in China, Indonesia and in Japan itself to captured American flyers, is now (1949) common knowledge.  Several leading men of the war, including one famous patriotic-song writer, have committed suicide in reparation for their contributions to the war. Unease stirs in Ono’s mind.  How did he behave?  How did he contribute? Should he have known?  Should he now admit to not knowing?

He knows that his informing on his own best student led to a police raid and the burning of “unpatriotic paintings. ” Did it lead also to his brutalization and torture?

Even though in the last pages he can finally say,

“I am not too proud to see that I too was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end…”
his daughters, the marriage arrangement now successful, deny what he has told us. Setsuko tries to convince him to “stop believing he has done some great wrong.”

At the end, “an artist of the floating world” takes on another meaning, not just a painter of the demi-monde, not just the human mists of conscience and created memories, but an artist at confabulation, an artist at avoiding a confrontation with what he might have known then, and surely knows now: sending a son to war, to die, and calling it courageous is a way to avoid thinking of the waste of lives and betrayal by leaders. To remember his life as an artist, of stature and talent is to avoid knowing that his work and his art encouraged the waste of many lives, and led by betrayers to the betrayal of friends and early ideal.

Or perhaps it is Ishiguro, himself,  who is the “Artist of the Floating World,” our own world, suggesting how frighteningly few of us are able to be honest about what we have done and not done, how it is the world floats in the way it does.

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Thanks to my wife and her book group for pressing The Floating World upon me.