NOVELIST ISHIGURO ON A PAINTER AND THREE GENERATIONS
WITH JAPAN’S DEFEAT in World War II, its young and old generations had a reckoning. The youngest adults questioned the 1930s “patriotic” impulses of their parents, impulses that led to a devastating war on the homeland.
This is the cultural setting of Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World (1986), a first-person narration by an elderly patriotic artist of his experience around 1949. He is Masuji Ono and the story focuses on his fears—real or imagined—that his work in wartime propaganda art had sullied his family reputation. Across much of the novel, he worries that his past will threaten the marriage prospects for his twenty-six-year-old daughter.
In those days of arranged marriages, each family investigates the other, often using “detectives.” Ono frets over the probing, since already, the previous year, a first marriage attempt for his second daughter had failed. Ono visits two of his old art compatriots to ask that they give him a good recommendation if a detective inquires.
Ishiguro, best known for his novel (later a movie) The Remains of the Day (1989), does an exquisite job in evoking Ono’s fears, only for readers to learn at the end that Ono’s interior guilt is what haunts him. Nobody actually holds his wartime art against him. This comes through in several poignant episodes.
Generally, Ono suspects his two daughters are whispering about his past. So he decides to bring the issue into the open. “I’m quite prepared to acknowledge there are certain aspects to my career I have no cause to be proud of,” he tells the married daughter. However, she is sincerely perplexed by his apology. “Father [Ono] was simply a painter,” she says. “He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.”
In a similar vein, Ono has spent the year worrying that Dr. Saito, a noted art critic, had closely followed his pro-war career, and thus may not let his son marry Ono’s daughter. Dr. Saito, in fact, hardly noticed Ono’s work—again, showing how the elderly artist was imagining, under guilt pangs, that he was famous then, but reviled now.
His old artist colleague summarizes the truth of the matter: “Our contribution was always marginal,” he tells Ono. “No one cares now what the likes of you and me once did.” Ono had produced a popular banner painting of young men bearing rifles, while his friend produced a popular China-occupation banner.
Even though this popular imagery helped generate support for Japan’s militarism, said the friend, “We’re the only ones who care now.”
This novel takes place over eighteen months. It is a touching story of guilt and forgiveness. Time passes and the next generation looks ahead optimistically as Ono’s devastated city rebuilds.
In addition to portraying Japanese character, and contrasting three generations effected by the war, the novel explores the world of Japanese artists. Young artists trained with a “master artist.” They worked in group settings and were expected to reproduce the house style. This could be commercial or traditional. Artists also illustrated magazines or comic books.
Ono left a company that produced “Japanese art” for export to join a more traditional workshop. There, the goal was to produce fine art that mirrored the sights of the Japanese “pleasure district,” or “floating world”: geishas, lanterns, gatherings, and such. It is painting that sought to “capture the fragile lantern light of the pleasure world.”
Other artists in the 1930s, however, caught by the “new spirit” that wanted the Emperor and military to “restore” Japanese greatness, felt this pleasure art—a world of effete “businessmen and politicians”—was complacent. It needed to be replaced by a bolder aesthetic that rallied the nation. This was the goal of a group called the Okada-Shingen Society, which recruited artists for the imperial-military cause.
Ono responded. He at first wanted to do realist art to help the poor. That deviance from the “pleasure world” style prompted a fellow artist to call Ono a “traitor.” Ono gradually was persuaded to patriotic art, a style using strong calligraphy and hard outlines.
The pro-war art group disdained not only the old-fashioned art, but the modern, for bringing “European influence into Utamaro tradition had come to be regarded as fundamentally unpatriotic.” Indeed, as a talented artist, Ono rose to be a member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department and “official advisor to the Committee on Unpatriotic Activities.” Then, at his career high point, he won the patriotic Shigeta Foundation Award in 1938.
To his later regret, Ono had suggested the Committee visit an artist friend to invite him into the patriotic fold. Unfortunately, the thugs burned the artist’s “decadent” art and took him in for questioning (the most concrete incident in Ono’s feeling postwar guilt).
After the war, Ono is old and retired, watching his two daughters make their way into marriage and a future; his son, Kenji, died on the front and his wife was killed in a city bombing. The one who comforts old Ono most is his grandson, Ichiro, on whom he dotes. The grandson represents a new reality in Japan, the American occupation. Ichiro has become enamored of the new American imports, from the “hi-ho Silver” of the Lone Ranger to eating spinach like “Popeye the Sailorman.”
In his own overconfident youth as an artist, Ono had decided to “risk everything in the endeavor to rise above the mediocre.” Tragically, it was a high personal motive, but in hindsight the national war fervor was a very bad cause.
Ono is left to watch his old friends and reputable peers die. In one case, a musical composer of patriotic songs committed suicide to “apologize.” Ono’s daughters worry he might do the same. Instead, he finds peace in fond memories of his younger days in the old, now destroyed, pleasure district, the “floating world” between night and dawn. It has been replaced by glass office buildings. He sees young men in white shirts coming out of them, as optimistic as he had been in youth, and thinks: “One can only wish these young people well.”