An Artist of the Floating World is a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro which was first published in the year 1986. The background of the story is set in the times of post world war II. The world war II happened from 1939 and lasted until 1945. Click here to read a very brief description on Japan’s position in World War II.
An Artist of the Floating World is a work of fiction based on the war memories. The main protagonist of this book is Masuji Ono, who is narrating the story to us.
The story constantly moves from present to past and past to present, which makes it a little confusing at times. In this summary, I will try to put things in place for the better understanding of the reader.
Masuji Ono is a retired artist, who lives with his old memories and sometimes regrets about his past. Ono always wanted to become an artist. While growing up, Ono’s father did not like his artistic ambitions. He burnt all of Ono’s art work, trying to kill his dreams.
Later, Ono moves to a different city and achieves his dream of becoming an artist. After working with Master Takeda and Mori-San, he meets Matsuda, a Nationalist who pushes Ono to create Art addressing the social and political problems prevailing in the Japan at that time.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Ono turns into a propaganda artist. His art works were powerful enough to become a reason for the second world war. It provoked the young minds, soldiers and common people to appreciate the need for war. Ono was very proud of his influence as an Artist, which he believes for a mistaken ideology of Nationalism.
Ono was not a rich person. But, he lived in a large house, which was once Akira Sugimura’s house. Sugimura was an influential personality in the city. After Sugimura’s death, his daughters kept the property for sale. Back then, Ono was looking for a house. His wife, Michiko believed that a better house could increase the chances of good marriage prospects when their kids grow up.
One day, Sugimura’s daughters approached Ono with an unbelievable offer. They offered him the lowest price for the house. They said, their father wanted the house to be in good hands, rather than a rich one. Ono was also told that, Sugimura was an art appreciator and was aware of Ono’s work.
Fifteen years has passed since Ono purchased Sugimura’s house. Ono was now living a retired life. Shortly, after Japan’s surrender in World War II, Sugimura’s younger daughter came to visit the house. By then many parts of the house were damaged by the bomb attacks. She got emotional seeing her father’s house and asked Ono to repair the damaged parts in the house.
Ono’s wife, Michiko and his son Kenji were killed during the war. His elder daughter Setsuko has been married off. The only people who lived in that house now, were Ono and his younger daughter, Noriko.
Ono remembers Setsuko’s visit previous month, with her son, Ichiro. Ono had covered major repairs in the house by then. While Setsuko spends time with her sister, Ono enjoys his time with his grandson.
Marriage negotiations were going on for Noriko, who was already 26. Those days, 26 was considered very late for a girl to get married.
Noriko didn’t seem happy with the current prospect. She was still thinking about the one she missed previous year, with Jiro Miyake, which was probably a love match. The sudden withdrawal by Miyakes’ is still a mystery.
Ono believes that the Miyakes’ family status not matching with Ono’s, was their reason for stepping back. Noriko and Setsuko thinks it has something more to it.
Mrs. Kawakami’s bar
Ono visited Mrs. Kawakami’s space, the previous day. It was the oldest bar in the pleasure city. Pleasure city is the place located on the other side of the bridge of hesitation.
Mrs. Kawakami opened her bar almost 17 years ago. Those days, she had lot of competitors. The War changed everything, others closed their place and left. Business has become very difficult for her, yet she lives with a hope that things might get better soon.
Ono and Shintaro (Ono’s student) were her only customers.
Mrs. Kawakami mentions about a relative of hers who is seeking job. Shintaro says, Ono could help her relative as he had once helped Shintaro’s younger brother, Yoshio, with a recommendation. But Ono says, he has only limited contacts now. Ono loves spending time at Mrs. Kawakami’s bar with Shintaro, who treats Ono with great respect.
Note : Throughout their conversations, Ono and Shintaro addresses Mrs. Kawakami as ‘Obasan’ which means ‘Aunt or older woman’ in Japanese. Shintaro and Mrs. Kawakami addresses Ono as ‘Sensei’ which means ‘teacher’
Ono remembers, ‘Migi-Hidari’, an establishment where he taught young talents like Kuroda, Murasaki, Tanaka etc along with Shintaro. Migi-Hidari was still there, all windows blown out, part of the roof fallen in. Ono wonders if they would come back to life ever again.
Ono and Ichiro
Ono spends good time with Ichiro. He tries to correct Ichiro’s drawings. Ichiro asks him whether he was a famous artist before war. He demands to see his grandfather’s paintings. Ono changes the topic and promises to take him for ‘the monster movie’, next day.
On the other hand Noriko was planning to take Ichiro to ‘deer park’ the next day. Hence ‘the monster movie’ got postponed. Setsuko stayed back at home with Ono when Noriko and Ichiro went to ‘deer park’.
Ono recalls his childhood in Tsuruoka Village. He remembers how his father was against his dreams of becoming an artist, and how he burnt all of Ono’s art work on a fine day. Ono was just 12 back then.
Setsuko worries about Noriko’s marriage negotiations
Setsuko (and her husband Suichi) feels that they need to take enough precautions to make this marriage happen. She somewhere has a feeling that Ono’s past could be a reason for Noriko’s failed engagement previous year. Ono is sure that these thoughts are coming from Suichi and is totally irritated by Setsuko’s remark.
Ono’s conversation with Jiro Miyake
Ono recalls his conversation with Jiro Miyake at the tram stop. Jiro tells Ono about his President’s death. The man killed himself as an apology for Company’s activities during the war.
What surprised Ono was, Jiro thinks the President did the right thing by killing himself. Jiro believed that those who had a role to play in provoking the war, are the greatest cowards.
Ono did not take Jiro’s words seriously that day, but now, when he recalls the conversation, it hit him somewhere. He had heard similar words from Suichi as well. It was during Kenji’s (Ono’s Son who was killed during the war) burial ceremony.
Kenji’s burial ceremony
Kenji died in Manchuria and it took a year for them to receive his ashes, that too mixed with other soldiers. Suichi looked very angry that day. When Ono asked for the reason, he said, Kenji might have died a courageous death but for a stupid cause.
He was angry with people who were majorly responsible for the war, but still alive enjoying their life. That was indeed a rude remark towards Ono. Ono ignored the remark as it was not the time for an argument. He also understood that the war has changed many things. Suichi was no more the person he used to be when he married Setsuko, which happened much before the war.
Ono’s Visit to Arakawa District
Arakawa district had a residential atmosphere. It got connected to Ono’s city in 1931 when new tram lines started operating throughout the city.
Arakawa district is located on other side of the Bridge and is also referred to as the ‘Pleasure District‘. Earlier, the Arakawa district did not have its own identity. It was referred to as ‘east of Furukawa’
The story of Migi-Hidari
During 1933-34, authorities were closing down many of the establishments in Furukawa. Ono made a proposal to the authorities to change Yamagata’s bar into a patriotic bar where Artists and Writers could gather. They agreed and Yamagata renovated his bar. Thereafter it was called Migi-Hidari.
Ono’s memories with the Furukawa district
Ono has been visiting the Furukawa district and Yamagata’s bar since 1913. He moved to that place as a young man. Back then, it was an ugly place. Ono lived in a small attic room, living the life of a struggling artist.
Ono worked with Master Takeda during his initial days as an artist. They had tight deadlines which took away Ono’s sleep.
After a year, a new artist named Yasunari Nakahara joined the firm. Nakahara was nick named as ‘the tortoise’ as he was very slow with his work. One day, when things went out of hand, Ono stood up for Nakahara. He said that Nakahara had more dedication towards painting and he never compromised with quality. Somehow, it wasn’t something that went well will the rushed atmosphere in Master Takeda.
At later point in time, Ono left Master Takeda and become a pupil (student) of Seiji Moriyama, whom he believed to be a true artist. He also recommended ‘the tortoise’ to Seiji Moriyama. But, Nakahara felt bad about it. He thought, that would be disloyal to Master Takeda, but later joined Ono.
Ono and Ichiro goes for the monster movie
Ono encounters Dr.Saito in the tram. Noriko’s marriage negotiations has been in progress with Dr.Saito’s elder Son, Taro. They exchange pleasantries and praise Mr.Kyo who is a mediator in their marriage dealings. Just before getting down from the tram, Dr.Saito mentions that they have a mutual acquaintance who is none other than Ono’s old student, Kuroda.
Ichiro enjoys the monster movie burying his head under the raincoat most of the times.
When Ono speaks about Kuroda to his daughters, Setsuko says, he should meet Kuroda and possibly his other old acquaintances and clear anything that might cause trouble in Noriko’s marriage.
Ono visits Matsuda
Matsuda was a Nationalist and art appreciator. While Ono was working with Seiji Moriyama and living in the Mori-San’s villa, Matsuda happens to meet him. He provokes Ono to create art that addresses the social issues and have an impact on the general public. Matsuda was also the one, who facilitated Ono’s match with Michiko.
Matsuda is quite weak and ill these days. He apologises for not being able to attend Michiko’s funeral. Ono tells Matsuda about Noriko’s ongoing marriage negotiations and requests him to say good things about his family if someone approaches for an enquiry. Matsuda assures him.
Ono in the pleasure district
Ono stands looking at the changes that took over the place after war. New buildings were rising around. Mrs. Kawakami has got an offer to sell her bar which she is now thinking of considering. Shintaro no longer comes to the bar.
Shintaro had told Ono before that he has applied for a teacher’s post in one of the new high schools. Ono felt a little insecure, for Shintaro hasn’t consulted with him before doing so.
Shintaro visited Ono with a request to write to the school committee confirming certain statements he made during the interview which was related to the China poster campaign, a few years before the war. Ono gets offended on this and ignores the request.
Noriko’s Miai (Prospective bride and groom meeting each other)
The meeting was arranged in the Kasuga Park Hotel. Mr. Kyo (the middle man) insisted Ono to invite someone to accompany them since Saito family had more members. Setsuko was far away and there was no one to be invited, hence only Ono and Noriko decides to go. Noriko feels that her father is doing nothing to make things go smoother. But Ono has been doing his best.
He recalls going to meet Kuroda. A young man named Enchi receives him at the door. Enchi is student as well as care taker of Kuroda. Enchi misunderstand Ono as somebody else and they both have a pleasant conversation. Later when he gets to know Ono’s name, he rudely instructs Ono to leave. He says that Kuroda might not want to meet him after all his suffering in the jail, and adds that he knows who the actual traitors were. This badly hits Ono and he leaves.
Few days later, Ono receives a letter from Kuroda confirming that he did not wish to meet Ono as their meeting will not produce any value to both parties. Unfortunately, Noriko opens this letter and this worries her. Since Kuroda is a mutual acquaintance between both the families, Ono fears if things might go wrong.
Finally, the miai day comes. Noriko was quite anxious. Fortunately Taro Saito and his parents were very friendly. They makes the atmosphere lighter for Ono and Noriko. Taro’s younger brother Mitsuo saito did not look that pleasant to Ono. Mistuo reminded him of Enchi.
Ono gets to know that Mitsuo studies at Uemachi college, where Kuroda is currently working as a teacher. Mitsuo denies knowing Kuroda well, as he is not a art student.
Ono expresses his regret about the past. He says he had done mistakes in the past which had much impact on the nation’s sufferings. Noriko is shocked at this statement by Ono. But Taro lightens the mood by saying Ono is being harsh on himself and he isn’t supposed to be so. Noriko is moved by Taro’s words and the miai moves towards a happy ending
Ono feels relieved
Ono is happy about his declaration of past mistakes to Saitos. He feels Shintaro should also have done the same instead of asking Ono to write to the school committee taking the whole responsibility of mistakes.
On the other hand Mrs. Kawakami is emotional as she will be leaving her place soon. Ono did not express his sadness, he knew that with Mrs. Kawkami’s bar taken over by the authorities, the stories of their happy place has to remain only in memories.
Taro and Noriko are married now. Ono recalls his first meeting with Dr. Saito almost sixteen years ago when Ono just moved to his new house (Akira Sugimura’s house). During their first meeting, Dr. Saito said to Ono something like ‘A great honour to have an artist of your stature in our neighbourhood, Mr. Ono’.
Setsuko and Ichiro visits Ono shortly after Noriko’s wedding. Setsuko is of an opinion that Ono need not have regretted about his past during Noriko’s miai since there was no chances Dr. Saito knowing Ono earlier. But Ono thinks Dr. Saito surely knew about his past work.
Setsuko shows her concern about Ono comparing himself to a composer who wrote highly influential nationalist songs during the war and recently committed suicide as an apology for encouraging the bloodshed. Ono tells her that he is not considering suicide. Setsuko appreciates Ono’s work and says he should not believe he did anything wrong in his past.
Ichiro is eight years old now. He likes to eat spinach as it gives him strength. Ichiro reminds Ono of Kenji’s (Ono’s son) childhood. They spend good time in the city before making their way to Izhumimachi district where Taro and Noriko lived.
Taro mentions about a pupil in his school who was nick named as ‘the tortoise’ which again takes Ono to his past. He recalls his time with Nakahara at Master Takeda till 1913 and then at Mori-Sans for next 7 years until Ono met Matsuda. The tortoise was really shocked to see Ono’s disloyalty towards Mori-Sans when he decided to join Matsuda.
Ono also recalls Kuroda’s arrest. It was on Ono’s phone call, Police entered Kuroda’s house. Ono didn’t expect an arrest. He just thought there is something wrong going on. Police burnt all of Kuroda’s work saying they were ‘Un-patriotic trash’
Ono comes to know about Matsuda’s death. He had visited Matsudo few months after Noriko’s wedding. Ono was happy to tell him that both his daughters were now pregnant (setsuko, the secome time). Ono believed that he and Matsuda always tried to do something they were very hopeful and ambitious of, unlike others. They both sensed a feeling of satisfaction about that.
After Matsuda’s death, Ono stands on the Bridge of Hesitation looking at the pleasure district. Everything has changed there now. Mrs. Kawakami’s bar is replaced by a glass-fronted office building. Migi-Hidari is now a front yard for a group of offices set back from the road. He felt nostalgia about his pleasure district. But he was quite glad to see the city being re-built so rapidly. He wishes better future to the younger generation
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954, eventually moving to England at the age of five, only to return to Japan twenty-nine years later. Growing up Ishiguro had a traditionally Japanese mother, who resultantly influenced his writing when reflecting on Japan. Furthermore, his reading of Japanese novels and comics allowed him to stay connected to his Japanese heritage as well as see the differences between Western and Japanese society, influencing his writing through developing a sense of Japanese ideals.
An Artist of the floating world was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for the same year. It was a nominee for ALA best books for young adults.
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