An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954. He moved with his parents to Guildford in Southern England in 1960 when his father was recruited to work as a marine biologist for the British National Institute of Oceanography. Ishiguro did not visit Japan again until he was in his thirties. Ishiguro was educated at a boys school in Surrey, and attended the University of Kent. As a teen, he hoped to become a rock musician. Ishiguro received a masters at the University of East Anglia, where Angela Carter became an early mentor and he studied with Malcolm Bradbury. Ishigura enjoyed critical acclaim starting early in his career, and won the Whitbread award for his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World. He has been nominated for Great Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Booker, four times, and won it in 1989 for The Remains of the Day. In 2017, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The committee justified the decision to award the prize to Ishiguro by saying: “in novels of great emotional force, [Ishiguro] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Ishiguro is married and has one daughter.
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Historical Context of An Artist of the Floating World

Although the destruction and defeat of Japan during World War II give the novel its immediate context, the novel is more broadly concerned with transformations in Japanese society occurring throughout the first fifty years of the twentieth century. In the first two decades of the century, the economy boomed as a result of modernization, industrialization, and the 1868 opening of the country’s economy to international trade. In the 1920s, the economy saw a crash, and poverty became a thorny problem, especially among peasants and industrial workers. Nationalist sentiment began to rise, with many in Japan advocating for a Japanese empire in Asia that would rival the empires of Europe. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria in a quest for greater resources. The war there was renewed again in 1937. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan’s territorial possession expanded to encompass Hong Kong, the Phillipines, and other parts of Asia. Japan then began to lose the war, but refused to surrender until long after it had become clear that the war could not be won. Nationalist propaganda advocated that ordinary Japanese citizens and soldiers make enormous sacrifices in the name of country and emperor. The war ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, although these events are never referred to in the novel. After the surrender, many Japanese were eager to move on from the devastation they had suffered. They were extremely interested in the ideas of democracy and capitalism preached by the Americans, who occupied the country from the war’s end until 1952. In the periods during which Ono is writing his narrative, the American occupiers focused intensively on building up the Japanese economy, a historical process reflected in the changing cityscape that Ono records.

Other Books Related to An Artist of the Floating World

The Noriko trilogy is a set of three films made by the director Yasujiro Ozu in 1949, 1951 and 1953. Ishiguro makes clear his debt to the three films by naming his protagonists after actors and characters in the films. For instance, the films feature a character named Noriko, who is played by the actress Setsuko Hara. The play also features a supporting actress named Haruko Sugimora, a name which recalls Ishiguro’s character Akira Sugimora. Each of the three films revolves around the question of whether its protagonist, Noriko, will marry, but in each film Noriko’s life and circumstances are radically different. In the realm of literary fiction, An Artist of the Floating World shows deep similarities—in its themes, structure, and even characters—to his later novel, The Remains of the Day, which centers on the reflections of a British butler living in the years after World War II and attempting to come to terms with his employment by Nazi collaborators. Ishiguro’s work also shares its thematic concern with memory and guilt with works by his contemporary, Ian McEwan.
Key Facts about An Artist of the Floating World
  • Full Title: An Artist of the Floating World
  • When Written: 1980s
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1986
  • Literary Period: Post-Postmodern Literature; Realism; New Sincerity. An Artist of the Floating World employs the clear, dispassionate descriptions of middle-class life that characterize realist texts, but depicts a world in which any idea of truth is undermined by the shifting nature of memory and popular understandings of history. In this way it combines the language of realism with the fractured picture of reality typical of postmodern texts. The novel does not have the cynicism often associated with Postmodern novels and for this reason, can be seen to combine elements of Postmodernism with an earnest desire to depict life as it really is, which is characteristic of realism. Texts that combine these characteristics have sometimes been grouped together under the rubric the “New Sincerity.”
  • Genre: Realist Fiction
  • Setting: An unnamed city in Japan in the years following the end of the Second World War.
  • Climax: At Noriko’s miai, Ono tells the Saitos that he admits making mistakes in his career.
  • Antagonist: Pride; Nationalism
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for An Artist of the Floating World

Reluctant Representative. Because Ishiguro left Japan at the age of five and did not live through the events he describes, he has expressed discomfort with the use of his novels as source texts for understanding post-war Japanese experience. Instead, he sees works like An Artist of the Floating World as works set in post-war Japan that tackle universal themes.

Dylan as Literature. Ishiguro has said he would not be a writer if he hadn’t discovered the lyrics of folk singer Bob Dylan when he was a teenager. Despite being a musician, not a poet or novelist, Dylan controversially won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, one year before Ishiguro.