An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Book #230
Beth’s List Love (first published February 2013)

An Artist of the Floating WorldI have read Ishiguro before, and liked his work very much. I found this novel somewhat less engaging than The Remains of the Day, but still it was a quick and easy read.

“I believe I have already mentioned the fact that I played a small part in the Migi-Hidari’s coming into existence. Of course, not being a man of wealth, there was little I could do financially. But by that time my reputation in this city had grown to a certain extent; as I recall, I was not yet serving on the arts committee of the State Department, but I had many personal links there and was already being consulted frequently on matters of policy. So then, my petition to the authorities on Yamagata’s behalf was not without weight.

‘It is the owner’s intention’, I explained,’that the proposed establishment be a celebration of the new patriotic spirit emerging in Japan today. The decor would reflect the new spirit, and any patron incompatible with that spirit would be firmly encouraged to leave. Furthermore, it is the owner’s intention that the establishment be a place where this city’s artists and writers whose works most reflect the new spirit can gather and drink together. With respect to this last point, I have myself secured the support of various of my colleagues, among them the painter, Masayuki Harada; the playwright, Misumi; the journalists, Shigeo Otsuji and Eiji Nastuki–all of them, as you know, producers of work unflinchingly loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor.’”

So remembers Masuji Ono, looking back on his pre-war life as a prominent artist in Imperial Japan. He is writing at a time after the war when a younger generation, and Japanese society at large, devastated by the effects of Japan’s role in the Second World War, look with criticism on those involved in engineering and promoting that war to the nation. His past actions have affected his professional relationships and have also created tension in the relationships with his own daughters. Ono must come to terms with the meaning of his own professional and artistic choices and their moral import in light of Japan’s recent history.

This is a fairly dry read, but an interesting study in the changing attitudes in Japanese society, the nature of artistic training in Japan, and the dynamics of relationships between the sexes and generations in Japanese families of the period. I found it interesting, but not particularly moving. Ironically, as one who lived briefly in Japan in the 1980s, I shared with Ono a certain concern about the degree to which American influences have come to predominate over traditional Japanese attitudes since American post-war occupation there. While I absolutely value the shift from aggressive nationalism to a more democratic and international perspective, I remember being somewhat horrified at the degree to which American materialism and less appealing cultural norms were sweeping Japan when I was there.


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