Kazuo Ishiguro’s An artist of the Floating World is a novel ripe with scenes of introspection, indeed the past is one of the principal devices in order to further many of the work’s central themes. Regardless of the oftentimes stringent, even revered, remembrance of times of youthful flights of fancy there is nonetheless a looming presence of the present, and perhaps crucially one of the future. Truly a contrast is established between Ono’s floating world and that of the next generation. Although Ono sees the errors of his country and his own actions and expresses them in his frequent recollections he cannot help but hope that life will be better for his and his country’s progenies. We can see that through the contrast of the past and the present established by the use of flashbacks Ishiguro establishes the significance of the floating world and the reasons why, although it may not be inherently negative, it must be pushed aside for the future.
One of the more plentiful motifs interspaced throughout the novel is that of the biased flashback, characterized profusely by the unreliable narrator that is Ono. This emphasizes the duality that exists in the novel which serves its purpose stylistically as well as analytically. The novel is able to establish itself as one with a reverence for Japan’s past and its customs but makes way for the ideals of the ‘new world’ which serves to contrast the floating world of the past. The descriptions of this world of leisure stop short of being specified as an old-world custom yet it nonetheless parallels one of the novels central motifs; that of the teacher-student relationship. Apart from being a plot device the use of the different firms in which Ono Studies his craft under different masters emphasizes the effects on the past on those which will continue the craft, specifically those effects the teacher has on the learner and how this individual will use these teachings and transfuse the new ideals in the execution of this selfsame craft. Ono frequently sees this relation in his older years through his grandson Ichiro, this generational gap serves as perhaps the most intimate representation of this ‘new way of doing things’ however it is Ono’s hope that his teachings serve to instill in his grandson the remnants of the past that surely still have some worth, “certain traits will tend to survive, like some shadow of that influence… it is my hope that my grandson will retain them into his adulthood” (Ishiguro, 136). Whether the floating world represents an ideal of the past is not clear as Ono at times expresses his hope that the floating world may be reborn in the coming years.
The effects of the war had a very real effect on the citizens of Japan, physiologically being one of them, the ‘smell’ of the smoke hangs in the air for Ono and he cannot escape its implications. The olfactory effects this has is nearly the same extent to that of the ever-growing smell of the local slums, representing his complacency, this stench grew stronger over time until “it became quite nauseous” (Ishiguro, 166). But perhaps the strongest use of olfactic imagery is that which pertains to Ono’s craft, as previously stated his realization that his paintings have the ability for real impact, emphasized by the guilt-ridden moments of reflections in the later parts of the novel, the line, “bad paintings make bad smoke” (Ishiguro, 184) is crucial to the theme of pushing aside the complacent leisure of the floating world that Ono’s generation frequented. This spreading of a custom which has about it a great focus on passivity is perhaps not readily compliant with the new order of things after the previous generations shake-up of the status quo. Another device which is used as an emphasis in order to further the idea of picking and choosing the elements of the past in order to avoid the selfsame eras errs is that of the unreliable narrator in the flashback scenes which make up a significant bulk of the novel. The reader may see a connection to alcohol and that of Ono’s unreliability as a narrator, “It is possible, of course, that Mori-san did not use those exact words. Indeed on reflection, such phrases sound rather more like the sort of thing I would declare to my pupils after we had been drinking a little” (Ishiguro,151). Apart from furthering the concept of Ono’s stance in the theme that is the teacher-student relations, these and other scenes of intoxicated recollection serve to establish a parallel between the past and the floating world, a floating world which thrived on nights of rancorous display, many a drink was had in the halls of the establishments on the other side of the bridge of hesitation such as that of Mrs. Kawakami’s. Here a link may be established between that intoxicating, dare one say complacence inducing drink which with such fervor those individuals Matsuda blamed the nation’s shortcomings on indulged in.
On the note of Mrs. Kawakami and Matsuda; their lack of progenies leave them not so much in a generational limbo like Ono with his daughters and grandchild, more so they are consumed in the tides of a new world. Although Ono considers him a close friend he cannot help but have ideals which are frequently at odds with the less provincial-minded Matsuda, yet it is this contrary force that he brings which acts as the catalyst for Ono’s change from the pleasure minded world of the shortsighted artists, “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” (Ishiguro, 167). So too does Mrs. Kawakami have a hand in relating to the reader the futility of maintaining a floating world in the aftermath of the war. As Ono recalls it the times spent in the pleasure district was a form of indulgence with which an aura of leisure not in line with the then current time of war. This was spearheaded by Mrs. Kawakami’s place which is most significant in the state it is in at the novel’s present. What was originally a thriving hub is now reduced to a near empty abode with nary a traveler in sight, Ono then is one of the few who still has sympathy, and perhaps even one foot in this rapidly deteriorating floating world.
Up until now, the reader may deduce that the floating word is inherently negative, in truth there are many negatives to it and apart from the previous examples perhaps the greatest declaration of this by Ishiguro is the scene of Ono’s youth. This flashback serves to show the reader the relationship between the protagonist and his strict father, yet the most important aspect of this scene is that of the relating the prophecy that the traveling monk gave to the family concerning Ono. Our protagonist was destined to be a part of this floating world yet ultimately it was his decision to join the artists as it was his decision to escape the complacence inducing profession. Here we see the contrast between fate and free will, whatever he was destined to do it was the path that Ono decided to take which defines his character. This is why Mr. Enchi’s rushed accusation toward Ono is flawed, “most things are more complicated than they appear, Mr. Enchi. Your generation tends to see things far too simply” (Ishiguro, 113). The new generation tends to view those in the past as the culprits for their present ailments although the reality, the greater scope is much less black and white.
The complacency of the floating world it seems is not compatible with the time of action landscape of post-war era Japan, the scenes of introspection draw a significant parallel when the placed against the backdrop of the modern ways, those in the olden days are both physically and metaphorically crumbling as they make way for the next generation. The inaction of the people in the floating world may have been the reason Ono decided to disavow that aspect of his art yet his declaration that he does not regret his actions as others to show that one cannot simply condemn the old ways. Truly Ono declares that he hopes that as time goes on that these young people may reestablish the floating world in a world in which the outlook is less bleak, “one can only wish these young people well (Ishiguro, 206).