Set in immediate post-war Japan, successful artist Masuji Ono reflects on his life as his youngest child prepares for her maia and the marriage investigations undertaken by both families prior to consent of any wedding. In her mid-twenties, it is Noriko’s second such undertaking and there’s a tacit concern that it may be her last opportunity to find a husband.
It is the return to the family home for a short visit by the married Setsuko, the elder daughter, which sets in motion Ono’s reflections on his past. It is she who implies that it is her father’s pre-war successes and political associations that may hinder negotiations with the Saito family and Noriko’s future.
At an early age, Ono entered into the apprenticeship schools of great masters before he rejected their traditions of an aesthetic ideal and, becoming involved in far-right politics, helped spearhead imperialist propaganda in the arts and, ultimately, the declaration of war in 1940. But, with Japan’s defeat, the younger generation blame the imperialists for leading the country to disaster: Ono and his peers are discredited.
An Artist of the Floating World, like many of Ishiguro’s early novels, is written as a first-person narrative, thus allowing Ishiguro to reveal his central characters’ flaws and their perspectives on given situations and events. Such a style builds a level of sympathy and pathos with the reader. Ono’s pre-war political associations are only gradually revealed – initially he simply appears to be a successful, somewhat pompous old man with a firm view of tradition, status and protocol. But, as the book evolves and the old man narrates the actions and beliefs of the younger self, it appears that he begins to understand the errors of his ways. The war, afterall, accounted for the death of his son and his wife.
Yet the issues he confronts are buried in the past and remain unresolved: the old man will continue to believe the collapse of Noriko’s first marriage negotiations was the simple result of the groom’s family realising their social standing was not equal to that of the Ono family. As an unreliable narrator, the artist has presented his perspective and has at least seemingly come to terms, on his level, with the errors of his ways.
Exploring changing cultural behaviour and values (the floating world), An Artist of the Floating World is a beautifully nuanced novel, sparely written yet each word contains depth and is full of meaning. The novel was shortlisted for the 1986 Man Booker Prize (losing out to Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils).