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on July 16, 2002
I read "An Artist of the Floating World" twice in one week, once in fascination and once more to explore the nuances and subtleties that characterize Kazuo Ishiguro's novels. This short work, Ishiguro's second novel, was short listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. Both a character study and an intriguing glimpse of pre-war Japan, in many ways it is a Japanese parallel to Ishiguro's highly successful third novel, "The Remains of the Day".
Ishiguro enjoys slowly revealing his characters through their recollection of events long past. The memories are often fragmented, sometimes hazy, someimes simply untrustworthy. In "An Artist of the Floating World" the situation is further complicated by the tendency of its protagonist, Masuji Ono, to misinterpret his own memories.
"An Artist of the Floating World" is a portrait as Masuji Ono saw himself, and as he believed that others saw him. It is three years after Japan's defeat and Ono is preoccupied with the negotiations around his younger daughter's proposed marriage. Last year Noriko's marriage negotiations with another young man were unexpectedly treminated by the groom's family. Almost without self-awareness, Ono begins to question whether his artistic support of the imperialistic movement in the thirties and during the war now places his daughter's prospects in jeopardy.
Although Ono sees himself as a modest man, he overstates the impact that his military and patriotic art had in conditioning the Japanese people for the impending imperialistic war effort. It is never quite clear just how popular and widespread his war posters actually were. In contrast, Ono seems incapable of recognizing the magnitude of his crime against his best student, Kuroda, whom he betrayed to the authorities. He rationalizes that Kuroda's years in prison now give him credibility in the new Japan and that he will fare well in the post-war period. He is even so naive as to believe that Kuroda might be persuaded to overlook the past and thus support, or at least not hinder, his daughter Noriko's ongoing marriage negotiations.
I highly recommend "An Artist of the Floating World" for readers either new to Kazuo Ishiguro or already familiar with his other novels. It is an intricate work of beauty.
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on May 5, 2004
What happens when legitimate art turns into propaganda and can propaganda be considered legitimate art? What happens to the artist who ventures into propaganda when his side loses the political battle? Can he still create art for art's sake?
These are some of the questions explored in An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro's excellent novel of postwar Japan and the musings/fate of a renowned artist who, having served the imperial cause during the war, is now very much suffering for it.
Ishiguro writes with an excellent blend of economy and descriptive language that wastes no words or passages on tangents or irrelevance. He creates postwar Japan so vividly it is a true "you-are-there" read. Very rarely are authors capable of weaving such realism into a non-contemporary setting. It's also a very fast moving story, in spite of the fact that in terms of action there is very little. You come to know and understand the characters so completely that it simply adds to the effect of the realism.
A classic work by a very talented writer.
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"An Artist of the Floating World" is a beautiful little novel, written in typical Ishiguro style, with the calm surface waters belaying the rapid current that flows beneath. It is an interesting style that attempts to ape classical Japanese literature, infusing it with Ishiguro's innate Brittishness, coming from being born of Japanese parents but raised in Britain.
As with his other novels, and part of his style, a knowledge of historical events is taken for granted on the part of the reader. Allusions are made to once-famous or infamous events and people, and names are dropped with the understanding that everyone is intimately familiar with WWII and the cultures of Japan and England.
The title is a bit misleading, as the "Floating World" is usually associated with the Edo period of Japan, and not with the Fascist era of Showa. Anyone expecting Geishas and Samurai will be disappointed.
A very quick and quiet read, "An Artist of the Floating World" is something than can be read over a weekend with a cup of green tea. It contributes a viewpoint, and a necessary one, to WWII Japan and paints a human face onto a troubled period of history. Love and family and duty are on display here, along with good intentions leading down dark paths, and the righteousness of actions and re-actions.
Like "Remains of the Day," "An Artist of the Floating World" is an intimate, beautiful character sketch. Very much worth the limited time needed to enjoy the book.
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on April 9, 2005
In An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro serves up a fascinating look at pre- and postwar Japan. The novel is the story of Masuji Ono, an artist and devotee of the "floating world" of Japanese nocturnal pleasures. Prior to the war, however, he was a propagandist for Japan's war effort, and this is in different ways haunting him in the wake of defeat. The war now over, Ono is older and left to reflect on the past and his present. He lost his wife and son in the war, and is now living with one of his daughters. It is a time in which the young blame their elders for the mistakes of the past, and no longer accept the validity of the floating world-which was all but destroyed by 1945. What then is there for Ono?

The novel begins three years after Japan's defeat, and Ono is deeply involved in the negotiations of his younger daughter's proposed marriage. In the previous year his other daughter, Noriko, had her planned marriage abruptly cancelled by the groom's family. Ono now begins to wonder whether his artistic support of Japan's war effort is now putting at risk his second daughter's chances.

The most poignant moment in the book revolves around his relationship with Kuroda, his star art pupil, who was betrayed by Ono to the authorities. Ono attempts to justify the years that Kuroda spent in prison by rationalizing that those years now give him credibility in the new Japan.

Ishiguro, who left Nagasaki at age 5 and moved to Britain, evokes a time and place and feeling with a deft and loving touch. An Artist of the Floating World documents the inner life of one man, and portrays the changing cultural attitudes. Whitbread Prize winner Ishiguro was shortlisted for England's Booker Prize for this work. Ishiguro pulls back layer after layer to reveal memory, or fragments of memory, that have profound meaning. Beautifully written.
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on April 6, 2002
I've read all of Kazuo Ishiguro's books, and, while "The Remains of the Day" is my very favorite, this small book comes in a close second. It is delicate in its theme and narrative, yet its effects are quite lasting.
"An Artist of the Floating World" takes place in 1948 in a quiet town in Japan. The protagonist, Masuji Ono, once a moderately famous artist, enjoys spending his days mopping his tatami and working in his garden, although the highlight of his life are the visits from his grandson, Ichiro. As Ono enjoys his retirement from painting, he also takes the opportunity to look back on his life and reflect upon its meaning.
Ono's memories of the past are many; he has had a long journey from young, bohemian art student to retired, successful artist. In the 1930s, Ono took great pleasure in visiting the "red light" districts of Japan, but after his marriage, he settled down and devoted himself to his family and his painting.
Ono and his late wife had three children. Sadly, his only son died during the war. His loss still affects Ono greatly, as it always will. His elder daughter, Setsuko, the mother of Ichiro, is, from all appearances, happily married. His younger daughter, Neriko, has not been quite as successful where marriage is concerned. Her first marriage negotiations were broken off and she is now involved in a second attempt.
In one of the most intriguing sections of this book, Ishiguro describes the marriage negotiations that used to be routine in Japan. These negotiations are called a "miai" and involve what resembles a British high tea. First, the parents must be matched, as the two families involved must be within the same social and economic class. Once it has been decided that the parents of both the prospective bride and the prospective groom are a "fit," the couple is allowed to meet for the very first time. Only after everyone has given their stamp of approval can the actual wedding finally take place. Unfortunately, Neriko's first marriage negotiation failed when she was considered to be of a lower social class than her prospective bridegroom. Ono, who has a darker past than one might initially assume, is worried that it may possibly come to light and harm Neriko's marriage negotiations, causing them to fail for a second time.
Ono's musings take us back to World War II Japan, a time when all Japanese felt extremely patriotic and a time when any "wrong" action could cause one to be labelled a traitor. Ono, through his art, endeavored to help the cause of Japan in the war. Now, Ono, who lost his both his son and his wife in the war, feels he must reflect on his actions and decide what the consequences of them really were. Does he require forgiveness? If so, from whom? Is he being silly and pompous in believing that his art actually made a difference? Or is he thoughtful and reflective; a man who wants and needs to take responsibility for his actions? I really don't know and Ishiguro doesn't tell us, much to this book's credit. Sometimes, the things that aren't written are more important that the things that are written. As we get to know Ono, we come to experience imperial Japan. It is a heady and exotic experience and one I certainly wouldn't have wanted to miss.
Ishiguro, in my opinion, is one of the top five greatest living authors and a master of understatement and subtlety. Nowhere is this more evident that in his glorious book, "The Remains of the Day." "An Artist of the Floating World," however, has charms of its own. Ishiguro's prose is precise, with every word carefully chosen. In his writing, Ishiguro seems to resemble the miai, the very epitome of politeness and respect.
"An Artist of the Floating World" is a beautiful book and one that leaves a deep impression without seeming to do much at all.
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on June 13, 2000
Ishiguro is a master of subtlety and subdued emotions. His leading characters seem to wear a Japanese Noh mask to conceal deep-rooted trauma. Such restrained emotions work especially well where the leading characters are Japanese since, of course, Japanese people are known for their restraint (in order to harmonize with others). Ishiguro uses this methodology to glorious effect with this novel's complex story of an artist who lives much of his adult life through a very turbulent era in Japan (1930-1950). In time, piece by piece, he reconciles the changes in society, lifestyle, his family and, lastly, himself.
As an added benefit, Ishiguro does a brilliant job in capturing the mood, scenery, and feeling of post-war Japan. The carnage of the war transcended every aspect of the country and its people. But miraculously, Ishiguro paints this picture with an optimistic (yet not rose-colored) flair which gives the book an uplifting feel.
I think An Artist of the Floating World will appeal especially to older readers. Surviving the war, the rath of youthful "know-it-all"s and criticism of one's peers is an inspiration.
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on October 20, 2002
Masuji Ono, once a respected artist and teacher, is now forcibly retired after supporting the Japanese imperialist government during WWII by creating war posters. He spends his time negotiating the past and present in the shadow of his former alliance, but never seems fully aware of the weight of that shadow, and the ensuing consequences to his relationships and his own soul. His naive support for the government during the war and resulting shift both in artistic focus and character reveal a man detached from meaning and responsibility, a dreamer whose own loss of a wife and son during the war will likely never be dealt with.

The intellectual transition Ono makes from artist to propagandist is shown when Ono explains his newfound artistic purpose to his former protégé, nicknamed "Tortoise".

This new direction turns out to be the creation of propaganda as art in the service of the imperialists' cause, but Ono is swept away by the more romantic, grandiose description of "....producing paintings of genuine importance. Work that will be a significant contribution to the people of our nation." Ironically, the posters he creates during the war seem to have no lasting artistic merit, but instead contribute to a darker legacy of betrayal and unintended consequences. His unexamined commitment to the government led him to order the arrest of a former student (disloyal to the cause) and, one can argue, indirectly contributed to the deaths of many fellow citizens by adding legitimacy to a destructive, expansionist movement. The degree of miscalculation is predictable since Ono never understood the methods and purpose of the imperialists to begin with.

Profound cultural transitions in Japan during and after the war and questions as to culpability are reflected in Ono's shifting recollections and encounters with various townspeople. Flashbacks depict conversations between Ono and younger Japanese men who are angry that old imperialists are not ashamed of their past transgressions and still prosper, unpunished. These characters relate stories of community leaders loyal to the former government committing suicide in shame, and seem to hint that others should follow.

Ono seems consistently unsure whether these conversations actually took place, and never fails to remark that the words spoken sound like something he would have said. Are these interactions simply an extension of his buried pain and remorse? Was Ono ever a highly regarded man, or was he always a pleasure-seeking fantasist seeking to promote himself no matter the cost? Perhaps his view truly is philosophical, in that he sees the past clearly but shrugs off meaning since the past cannot be changed.

These questions remain unanswered. The author isn't seeking redemption or clarity for the main character, but instead offers a glimpse into the repressed psychology of an artist struggling to avoid the reality of who he is as a result of Japan's defeat by the Americans, and his own abdication of honor, both as an artist and as a human being.
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on November 29, 1999
Kazuo Ishiguro's "An Artist Of The Floating World" is a beautifully written piece of work dedicated to the perenniel question of the role of an artist in society. Is it "art for art's sake" or does the artist have an implied obligation to hold a mirror to the burning issues of his day ? Through a series of flashbacks into the life of pre-war artist Masuji Ono, the novel also deals with the issue of moral courage and the ability to confront the past without denying one's convictions. The language employed by Ishiguro in his prose and dialogue is formal but entirely congruous with his subject. Ono is in disgrace with the post-war generation who blame artists, politicians and businessmen for their suffering as Japan struggles to recover from the ravages of the disastrous war. His association with the imperialist movement exacts a toll on the personal happiness of his unmarried daughter, Noriko, his former pupil and protege Kuroda desert him, but unlike the unprincipled Shintaro who is willing to recant his past beliefs to get ahead, Ono holds his own, yet shows great courage in breaking away from his master's tradition to paint a picture depicting squalor amidst plenty in contemporary society. Ishiguro's novel is simply brilliant and deserving of the accolades lavished on it. Highly recommended.
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on September 25, 2000
The premise of this story is similar to "Remains of the Day". It is about a man, now in his retirement, looking back on his past and rationalizing his actions in the context of a society whose judgement of him is no longer as favorable as it once was. Like "Remains", the actions in question took place in the years leading to WWII. In this case, the protagonist, Masuji Ono, was a talented artist who had lent his talent in producing cultural propaganda for the Japanese imperialist movement. In the post-war years, Ono has become an outcast. Seeking to secure the marriage of his daughter, Ono begins to slowly confront his past and attempts to reconcile it with the effect that it has had on his country. Along the way, Ishiguro explores several themes which are all deftly woven into Ono's recollections : the role of the artist in society, the master-student relationship, the maturization of an artist coming into his own voice, the importance of living a life to make a difference, among others. It also highlights aspects of Japanese society, such as the obligation of the parent, the emphasis on familial reputation in marriage, the proverbial tendency to hammer on the nail which sticks out, the struggle to regain its footing in the post-war years, and the effects of American influence during that time. (Note though that Ishiguro left Japan when he was 6; thus as noted in the backcover, the "Japan" of his fiction is a country of his imagination.)
I read this book on the recommendation of a reviewer who listed this as his favorite of Ishiguro's novels to date. This book, Ishiguro's second, was short-listed for the Booker price before his third "Remains" won it. I felt much more fulfilled reading this. When I read "Remains" a few years ago, I remembered being curiously underwhelmed (though it may not be the fault of the book since I read it after watching the movie; and I myself may well have changed since!..) But this has been a good read for me. It's a masterfully-written book, and as all good books do, helps to enlighten the human condition.
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on November 25, 1996
Ishiguro's "An Artist Of the Floating World" is an intricately-layered series of remembrances from a man recently retired after civilian service in the Second World War. During the ascendancy of his career, he had been schooled in an aesthetic referred to by his master in painting as the art of the "floating world", an aesthetic of lightness and enjoyment, yet as a discipline was nevertheless enforced with scolding strictness. As the protagonist recalls his life, the raising of his children, the growth of his career, the emergence of his own aesthetic, all in the context of the war's buildup and aftermath, Ishiguro patiently, quietly paints a portrait of the man's sense of pride, of accomplishment, of loss, love for his wife and daughters, and pathos always underneath, conveying a sense of identification with events monumental and intimate, all without wasting a word. Once I finished "An Artist Of the Floating World", I immediately read it again, just to savor the economy of the writing and to marvel at its construction
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