Monday, June 6, 2011

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The second of Ishiguro's novels, published in 1986, An Artist of the Floating World is set in post-war Nagasaki, the author's birthplace.  As The Remains of the Day was his dead-on portrayal of English propriety and restraint, so this novel is no less astute an observation of Japanese formality and custom in a time of great social change.

The narrator is aging artist, Masuji Ono, who finds himself somewhat adrift and bewildered in the years following the war. Japan's culture is in flux, the country rebuilds itself under the eye of the occupying Americans, and the younger generation does not venerate its elders in the way of the past.

As the book opens, Masuji relates how he came to own his grand house.  When he had been a younger man, the previous owner's heirs decided to interview worthy citizens and sell the house at a nominal price to the one they found most deserving. This is a value system that Masuji cherishes, and we get the sense that it's becoming a relic.

Besides, there was surely much to admire in the idea of “an auction of prestige”, as the elder daughter had called it. One wonders why things are not settled more often by such means. How so much more honourable is such a contest, in which one’s moral conduct and achievement are brought as witnesses rather than the size of one’s purse.

Now it is the late 1940s, however, and we learn -- through Ishiguro's typically indirect means -- that Masuji may not be held in the same high esteem anymore.  Much like the narrator of When We Were Orphans, Masuji quickly proves unreliable.  By watching and listening to the characters around him, we see that his view of the world is far from universal; in fact, he may be quite deluded.  Or he may simply be confused by a society that he finds increasingly hard to understand.

Masuji is trying to arrange the marriage of his younger daughter, Noriko. The last match failed because, he claims, the young man's family realised that he was not worthy of her. His two daughters' comments, however, suggest that there may have been another reason the negotiations collapsed.  Perhaps, the elder daughter timidly ventures, it had to do with Father's allegiances during the war.

The rest of the novel swirls around Masuji's reflections of his past, especially his role in the wartime years. At one time he suggests that he was painting works of nationalistic propaganda; at another time he recalls acting as a police informant, bringing about another artist's arrest and torture. He veers from denying any wrongdoing to humbly repenting his actions.  At times he claims he did what every loyal Japanese citizen was called upon to do -- show loyalty to Japan and the Emperor, yet at other times, he confesses his wish that he had made other choices.

At family gatherings, Ishiguro shows us both the classic Japanese formality and also the ways in which it had begun to loosen during the post-war years.  Masuji's daughters and students address him in the very deferential 3rd person:  "Perhaps Father could speak to his colleague", or "Perhaps Sensei could share his opinion". Masuji's son-in-law, however, having returned from serving with the army in Manchuria, speaks more freely.  At one family gathering, Masuji states that his son, Kenji, died bravely in the war, and this triggers the son-in-law's ire.
“Those who sent the likes of Kenji out there to die these brave deaths, where are they today? They're carrying on with 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 disaster. And yet it’s the likes of Kenji we have to mourn. This is 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.” And it was then, I am sure, as he turned back to the darkness outside, that he said: “To my mind, that’s the greatest cowardice of all.”

His anger reminds me of the Vietnam protesters of the 1960s in the U.S., raging that middle-aged government officials were sending American youths off to die in an unjust conflict. Ishiguro makes it plain that many of the Japanese soldiers returned home with the same resentment, and they were no longer afraid to express it.  This outspokenness distresses Masuji, who is clearly more accustomed to deference and restraint.
But such a transformation is by no means unique to my son-in-law. These days I see it all around me; something has changed in the character of the younger generation in a way I do not fully understand, and certain aspects of this change are undeniably disturbing.

And what of the book's title?  The floating world, Masuji says, refers to Nagasaki's 'pleasure district'.  His own teacher, Gisaburo, had painted nothing but scenes from this area.
The best things, he always used to say, are put together of a night and vanish with the morning. What people call the floating world was a world Gisaburo knew how to value.

As Masuji begins to experiment with new styles and new subjects -- the very subjects that the Imperial government would find so patriotic and useful -- he breaks away from his teacher.
"Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.” 

And so, all things prove to be transient:  the pleasure district is destroyed during the war and redeveloped as offices. Emperors give way to democracies. Manners change, and what was once revered is later reviled. We all dwell in a floating world.  

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