Ishiguro introduces us to four generations of Ono’s family, and between each generation, complicated differences and conflicts arise. While such conflicts may be universal—suggested by the fact that they crop up in both calm and fraught historical moments—they are exacerbated here by the unusually sudden changes happening in mid-twentieth-century Japan. Ono’s own father cares deeply about traditional, material definitions of success, and he expects Ono to take over the family business. He is so determined for this to happen that he cruelly tries to destroy his son’s paintings and plans to be an artist. Ono has political and cultural differences with his own children, and their, spouses, as well. He feels defensive of Japan’s earlier, nationalistic culture, and resents his children for embracing the American powers in Japan. While Ono never explicitly contemplates suicide, he dwells on stories of other men his age taking their own lives, which reveals that the older, less-powerful generation feels like a burden to the younger generation. In a more complex and paradoxical way, Ono both fears that he is a burden and wishes to be seen as one, since that would allow him to feel relevant and important in a changing world. Towards the end of the novel, the aging Ono seems to realize that the younger generations are not as different as he once thought. Previously upset by his grandson’s enthusiasm for American entertainment, he starts to recognize his grandson’s resemblance to other family members, and to perceive him as part of a broader family history. In the novel’s final scene, Ono realizes that the young people in town are similar to the friends he himself knew as a young man.
Imperialism and Sovereignty
Over the course of Ono’s life, Japan goes through a great deal of political turmoil. As a young man, Ono embraces Japanese military power and comes to believe that his country should be a worldwide imperial power. It is somewhat unclear what motivates these political views. He is upset by the injustice and poverty he sees in his city, and decides that Japan can improve the lot of its citizens through nationalistic militarization, though he never explains the relationship between these things. It seems that he feels a need for action, and that military power is the most obvious route, if not the most helpful. Since Japan loses the war, it actually ends up on the receiving end of American imperialism. Ono finds this humiliating, but it also drives a wedge between the older and younger generations, since the older ones are generally unhappy about this geopolitical situation and the younger ones are used to it or even enthusiastic about it. Ishiguro focuses less on the political results of imperialism and more on the personal factors that lead to it. In this book, a desire for purpose and meaning, without a proper outlet, lead to war and violence, in a neverending cycle.
At the end of this novel, we learn that much of the story Ono has told us isn’t quite true. While Ono did once subscribe to nationalistic political views, in his old age he has begun to pretend that he was far more influential than he ever was in reality. Therefore, while the generation gap between his own politics and his childrens’ remains a reality, the reader has to acknowledge the possibility that Ono is simply afraid of aging and death. He is, as a result, clinging to the idea that he made a difference during his life, even if that difference was a negative one. Ishiguro implies that one of the reasons for Ono’s seemingly irrational behavior is the loss he has suffered. His son is dead, meaning that the symbolic future version of himself has been extinguished—he has nobody to carry on his legacy. Indeed, even his country is now neutered and powerless in the face of post-war power shifts. Eventually, Ono seems to recognize that his daughters and grandchildren are worthy and meaningful heirs to his legacy. Still, the war robs him of a healthy aging process, at least for a long time, and as a result, he clings to an imagined past instead of a now-lost future.
There are essentially three types of grief in this novel, all of which Ono suffers at one point or another. One type comes from the unexpected or premature loss of a loved one. The loss of his wife and son during the war destabilize Ono, causing his narration to become unreliable. He is so unable to cope with the senseless realities of their deaths that he exaggerates, avoids and fabricates in order to either justify these deaths or minimize the damage they have done to him. A second kind of grief comes from the timely loss of a loved one. Matsuda’s death causes Ono to feel pensive, but he is able to deal with the loss in a healthy way, since he knows that Matsuda lived a long and satisfied life. In fact, Matsuda’s natural death allows him to contextualize the unjust deaths of Kenji and Michiko. The final, and most complicated, form of loss comes not from death but from betrayal or conflict. Ono parts with Moriyama, and even more painfully, with his favorite student Kuroda, on bad terms. The grief caused by these events is particularly difficult because the loss is a continuing event. Since Kuroda remains alive, Ono continues to hope that he might repair their relationship and regain Kuroda’s friendship. When he is rebuffed, he is forced to grieve all over again for this loss and to revisit the choices that led to it. The only way that he is able to cope with this kind of grief is to, eventually, acknowledge Kuroda’s right to distance himself and accept it begrudgingly.
The teachers in “An Artist of the Floating World” have a passionate, paradoxical relationship to their most gifted students. Ono himself acknowledges this paradoxical relationship, having been both a student and a teacher at different points in his career. The paradox is this: teachers want their favorite students to become successful, but they also want these students to remain dependent on their mentors. While he is working for Moriyama, Moriyama’s top student is mysteriously dismissed, presumably because he has violated the teacher’s strict aesthetic rules. This allows Ono to become the top pupil, but this new status gives him the confidence to question his teacher—and as a result he, too, rebels and is sent away. Yet, Ishiguro seems to imply, power and the micro-celebrity of being a beloved teacher can corrupt. Years later, Ono himself betrays his best student after that student acts in ways that Ono deems unsuitable. Though Ishiguro avoids moralizing, he does make a strong statement, through implication, about how difficult and yet important it is for authority figures to be flexible and open-minded.
The central storyline of the novel, or at least of its more linear portions, revolves completely around an engagement. Noriko’s arranged marriage becomes a site of tension for Ono. While Noriko’s previous, broken-off engagement was a love match, this one is completely arranged in the traditional manner. As a result, the young couple are far from the only people involved in the relationship. Ono, isolated since the war, has no choice but to reengage with society and grapple with the possibility—in fact, the undeniable reality—that people are judging him. The marriage negotiation is a perfect place for Ishiguro to expose his main character’s neuroses, since it involves an explicit judgment of his status. At the same time, the somewhat depressed Ono is forced to present himself in public for his daughter’s sake. Yet non-arranged marriages are just as fraught in this book. Noriko’s love match was broken off, not by her fiancé, but by his parents. In this sense, no marriage in this novel can exist independently of social status, familial relationships, and politics.