An Artist of the Floating World

by

Kazuo Ishiguro

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An Artist of the Floating World: April 1949 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Often Ono walks from his house to the Bridge of Hesitation that leads to the pleasure district to survey the construction going on all around him. The Bridge of Hesitation is so named because men would sometimes stand there deciding whether to go home to their wives or go out for a night of drinking. Now, Ono stands there looking at how new apartment blocks are going up in the place where the pleasure district used to be. All over the city, ruins from the bombing are being cleared away and new buildings are being constructed. Outside Mrs. Kawakami’s, a concrete road and the foundations for large office buildings are being built. Mrs. Kawakami has received an offer to sell her property, and she is considering it, especially since Shintaro no longer comes to her bar, making Ono her only customer.
Ono still calls the bridge near his house by a name it received during the period when his career was at its zenith and the pleasure district thrived. This name no longer makes sense given the new buildings that are going up to replace the old drinking establishments. It does, however, make literal the novel’s title. Ono is floating above the world on a bridge, while the old world of the pleasure district floats away and a new world, defined by the post-war focus on economic rebuilding, floats into view. The Bridge of Hesitation now reflects his own hesitation to let go of the world that is passing away.
Themes
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Over the winter, Shintaro told Ono that he was applying for jobs teaching art at high schools. Although Ono has not been Shintaro’s teacher for many years, he was surprised that Shintaro had not consulted him about his job applications. Then, a little after New Year, Shintaro comes to Ono’s house. Ono shows him into the reception room, where Shintaro thanks Ono for all he has done for him over the years. He tells Ono that his application at the high school is progressing well, but the committee is not satisfied about a couple points in Shintaro’s past. Shintaro says that he would like Ono to write to the committee to confirm something he told them: that the two had had a disagreement while producing the posters for the China crisis.
Ono expects Shintaro to look up to him and consult him as if he were still his teacher. Although Ono no longer has the respect of his more distinguished pupils like Kuroda, Shintaro’s fawning praise boosts Ono’s self-esteem. Now, however, Shintaro is asking Ono to say that Shintaro was not a committed nationalist during the war. In effect, this is the same thing that Ono himself asked of Matsuda when he visited his old colleague. Ono feels his role as a respected teacher is being taken away from him.
Themes
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The Relevance of the Artist Theme Icon
Ono says he does not recall this disagreement. Shintaro says he was drunk at an engagement party and rudely told Ono that he disagreed with him about the China crisis posters. Ono stands up and goes to look out onto his garden. He asks Shintaro if he is trying to disassociate himself from Ono’s influence. Shintaro denies this. Ono says that Shintaro should face the past: Shintaro got credit for the poster campaign at the time and should not lie about it now. Shintaro says that he respects Ono, but he is in the middle of his career and has different considerations than a retiree like Ono. Without replying, Ono silently watches snow falling in the garden. Shintaro tells Ono that he will leave the name and address of the committee, and he hopes Ono will write. Ono does not reply, and Shintaro eventually excuse himself and leaves.
The hiring committee does not want to hire a teacher who took a leading role in creating nationalist propaganda during the war, and Shintaro is asking Ono to tell them what they want to hear. This is a similar request to the one Ono made of Matsuda, but in the interceding six months, Ono’s ideas have shifted. Ono sees Shintaro as having joined the ranks of the younger generation who sees Ono and his generation’s ideas as discredited, and he rejects this point of view. As often occurs, Ono immerses himself in observation of the physical world—in this case, the garden—rather than deal with an interpersonal or ideological conflict.
Themes
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Intergenerational Conflict Theme Icon
Looking back on this conversation from the present moment, Ono says that it may seem that he treated Shintaro harshly, but what had been going on in his own life sheds light on why he felt no sympathy for those trying to evade responsibility. In fact, Shintaro’s visit was only a few days after Noriko’s miai, the formal meeting between two families arranging their children’s marriages.
From what the reader knows now, it is unclear why Ono would treat Shintaro’s request that he lie for him harshly, since he asked something similar of Matsuda. As it turns out from his subsequent description of the miai, Ono has reshaped the narrative he believes about his past and career.
Themes
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Family Reputation, Family Secrets, and Familial Loss Theme Icon
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Mr. Kyo arranges the miai for a day in November at the Kasuga Park Hotel. Ono is unhappy with the choice of location but gives his agreement when he hears the Saitos like the food there. Mr. Kyo tells Ono that he should feel free to invite a relative or close friend, because the miai will be weighted towards the groom’s side with Taro Saito’s mother, father, and brother all there. Setsuko is far away, and there is no one else to invite, so only Noriko and Ono plan to go to the miai.
Instead of describing the pain of not having Noriko’s mother Michiko present at this important moment in their daughter’s life, Ono focuses on the question of whether the hotel is an ideal spot. Ono escapes considering painful family loss by focusing on the physical surroundings of the miai.
Themes
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City, Nation, History Theme Icon
The weeks leading up to the miai are tense ones for Ono and Noriko. Ono does not tell Noriko about all his efforts to make sure things go smoothly, and she criticizes him for laziness and moping around doing nothing. Later, Ono wonders whether Noriko would have had her more confidence if he had shared what he was doing with her.
As usual, Ono does not speak directly to those around him about what he is doing. It is unclear what Noriko would like to see her father doing to prepare for the miai, but she seems certain that he will somehow ruin her chances of marrying.
Themes
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Family Reputation, Family Secrets, and Familial Loss Theme Icon
Intergenerational Conflict Theme Icon
One afternoon, Ono sits on the veranda looking at shrubs he has pruned. Noriko has just gotten home from work, and she tells Ono that he has ruined the bamboo, just like he ruined the azaleas. She says that he meddles because he has too much time on his hands. Ono says that the pruning looks fine, and Noriko says that he must be going blind or suffering from poor taste. Ono says that Noriko never did have much taste; she and her sister took after their mother, while Kenji took after him. He says that Michiko would sometimes even criticize his paintings, but then she would laugh and say she was mistaken. Noriko asks if Ono believes he was always right about his paintings. Ono says Noriko can re-prune the shrubs if she wants to change how they look. Noriko says she is much too busy to do that because she doesn’t sit around all day like he does.
It is unclear from Ono’s account (the only one that the reader gets) what Noriko is referring to when she says he meddles too much. It may be a reference to an undisclosed family secret. The references to Kenji and Michiko suggest that there are family stories that are being referred to but not revealed. At the same time, the instance has some resonance with Ono’s troubles as an artist. While Ono looks at the world of the city or garden, he is able to accurately depict it. But when he tries to change the garden by pruning it, or to change the culture of the city by encouraging the development of patriotic bars, he is less successful.
Themes
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Looking back on this conversation from the present moment, Ono reflects that, if he were to tell Noriko how much he had been doing on her behalf, she would likely be ashamed of her behavior towards him. In fact, earlier that day, he had gone to visit Kuroda.
While Ono seeks to explain how wrong Noriko is to treat him with scorn, he actually shows why she could be right in her critique of his gardening. Perhaps after an upsetting conversation with Kuroda, Ono came home and did a terrible job pruning plants.
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Ono reports that he had easily found where Kuroda lives. A professor at Uemachi College had told Ono the address and updated him on Kuroda’s career. His years in prison were strong credentials, so Kuroda was given a post as an art teacher. Ono says that, although it may seem perverse, he is glad to see that Kuroda’s career is progressing well, even though they became estranged.
While Ono worked as a nationalist painter during the war and had to retire afterwards because his ideology had become discredited, Kuroda seems to have taken the opposite stance during the war and to be succeeding in the postwar workforce as a result.
Themes
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Intergenerational Conflict Theme Icon
Ono goes to Kuroda’s apartment and rings the bell twice. A young man answers the door and asks if Ono is a work associate. Hearing that he is, the young man, named Enchi, asks Ono to come into the apartment to wait for Kuroda. The young man is Kuroda’s protégé and lives with Kuroda, because he has been thrown out of his own apartment for splashing paint on the tatami. Ono praises a painting on the wall which he believes to be Kuroda’s, but Enchi says it is his own. He says that Kuroda often tells him he must discover his own style. Ono tells him he has much talent and a style of his own will develop with time. Enchi thanks him for the encouragement and urges him to wait for Kuroda to come. Enchi praises Kuroda’s generosity to him.
Ono himself struggled with a landlord who got angry that he splashed paint on the tatami (a straw mat used as a flooring material), so he instantly relates to Enchi. He also went through cycles of imitating other people’s styles and then breaking away from those styles. Although he says that Enchi will find his own style in time, and Ono tells himself that this occurred during his own career, the question of whether Ono really ever discovered his own style, or whether he merely adopted the styles of his various teachers, hangs over the novel.
Themes
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Intergenerational Conflict Theme Icon
Enchi tells Ono not to hurry away, because Kuroda will want to thank him. Ono is surprised at this. Enchi says he had assumed that Ono represents the Cordon Society. Ono says that this is not the case. Enchi asks Ono’s name and, hearing it, walks away to look out the window. After a silence, Ono asks if Kuroda will be coming soon. Enchi says that Ono should not trouble himself by waiting any longer. Ono says he will wait, but Enchi says that he doesn’t need to—he will tell Kuroda that Ono visited, and Kuroda may write to Ono.
Enchi mistook Ono for someone who is currently influential in the art world, but his demeanor changes when he realizes who the visitor really is. The Cordon Society may be a reference to the honor Japan bestows on its most respected citizens, the Order of the Rising Sun. The most prestigious recipients of this award are called “Grand Cordons.”
Themes
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Ono tells Enchi that he must have been a very young man back when Ono and Kuroda knew one another, and he shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the relationship without knowing the full details. Enchi says Ono should leave and that he is shocked that Ono would dare to present himself as a friendly visitor. With a kind of strange composure, Enchi says that Ono must be the one who doesn’t know the details: Kuroda was beaten in prison and accused of being a traitor. His shoulder was injured, and he was denied medical treatment. Ono gathers himself to leave, repeating to Enchi that he does not yet understand how complicated the world is. Enchi says to him that everyone knows now who the real traitors are.
From what Enchi says, it is clear that Ono is to blame for Kuroda’s being jailed and treated as a traitor after Kuroda turned away from art that Ono saw as patriotic.  While Ono seems to hope that he and Kuroda can come to an understanding now that time has passed, Enchi suggests that the rift between them is permanent because of how much Kuroda suffered. Ono seems to be deceiving himself when he says there are things Enchi doesn’t understand that would change how he views what happened to Kuroda.
Themes
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The Relevance of the Artist Theme Icon
Intergenerational Conflict Theme Icon
Looking back on this scene from the present moment, Ono says he did not allow Enchi’s words to upset him but was disturbed that Kuroda might be so hostile to him, given how this could impact Noriko’s marriage. He writes Kuroda a friendly letter saying he would like to see him, but he is disappointed to receive a cold refusal from Kuroda. Although Ono does not tell Noriko about his attempts to reach Kuroda, he imagines that his bad mood after receiving Kuroda’s letter transmitted itself to her and made her anxious.
While Ono claims that he did not let Enchi’s words bother him, the poor job he did pruning the plants in the garden suggests that he may have been very distraught that day. Kuroda’s refusal to see him is yet another upsetting reminder to him that even if he can change his own view of his past to fit a new narrative, he cannot change the way others view it and this could have consequences for Noriko.
Themes
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Family Reputation, Family Secrets, and Familial Loss Theme Icon
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On the day of the miai, Noriko seems especially anxious. Ono tries to lighten her mood by joking about how long she is taking to get ready. Noriko snaps back that he has not even started to get ready and she can see that he is too proud to try to make a good impression even though it will determine her future. He asks her what she means by “too proud,” but she says no more. Ono reflects on the contrast between Noriko’s anxiety leading up to this miai and her casual approach to the miai with the Miyake family the previous year. He thinks she must have been quite confident that she would marry Jiro Miyake and been shocked when it fell through, but this does not excuse her rudeness towards him.  
Once again, the conflict between Ono and his daughter provides a hint into what Noriko and Setsuko truly worry will derail her marriage that differs from Ono’s account of the situation. Perhaps, because Ono felt that Jiro Miyake and the Miyake family were his social inferiors, he acted proud and snobbish around them. While Ono believes an artist like himself has an elevated social status, this may not be the way he is now perceived.
Themes
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The Relevance of the Artist Theme Icon
Intergenerational Conflict Theme Icon
Ono describes the Kasuga Park Hotel. It used to be one of the city’s best Western-style hotels, but it is now decorated to fit the American occupiers’ idea of a charmingly “Japanese” hotel.
Ono finds the Kasuga Park Hotel’s décor tacky and a bit offensive to Japanese pride. Although he looks down on this now, his first job as an artist was working to paint Japanese-looking paintings for foreigners.
Themes
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City, Nation, History Theme Icon
The evening is not completely clear in Ono’s memory, because the tension makes him drink more quickly than he usually does. He has a favorable impression of Taro Saito, his father, and mother. Taro’s younger brother Mitsuo, however, seems to Ono to be looking at him with a hint of hostility. Mitsuo resembles Enchi somewhat. Ono begins to feel that perhaps the rest of the family also feels hostility towards him, but Mitsuo is the only one young enough to not know how to conceal it. Ono begins to look to Mitsuo as a barometer of how the evening is going.
Ono begins his account of the miai by casting some doubt on the accuracy of his memory. It seems possible that he is experiencing Mitsuo as being hostile to him merely because Mitsuo looks a bit like Kuroda’s student Enchi, but in his anxiety and drunkenness, Ono reads actual hostility in Mitsuo’s features and decides that Mitsuo’s attitude reflects that of the entire Saito family.
Themes
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For the first part of the evening, Noriko is very stiff and reserved. Although Noriko is quite bold when around people she knows, she often has difficulty striking the right tone with strangers. But Ono can see from the way the family treats Mrs. Saito that they are not looking for a demure, old-fashioned wife for Taro.
Ono feels that Noriko may be spoiling her own chances to get married by acting awkwardly during the miai. He wonders if the Saitos will be able to imagine a place for her in their family.
Themes
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Dr. Saito is very good at creating a relaxed atmosphere. At one point, he raises the question of the large demonstrations happening in the city. He says he saw a young man who had been injured but intended to return immediately to the demonstrations and asks Ono’s opinion of this. Ono thinks the whole table fixes their attention on him, waiting for his response. He says it is a shame so many have been injured. Mrs. Saito says that her husband believes the demonstrations are good for society, but she doesn’t understand why. Saito says it is good that people are expressing their views openly. Taro says he thinks democracy is a good thing, but the Japanese are still learning how to handle the responsibility and should not be allowed to run riot. Dr. Saito laughs that it seems he is an odd man, more liberal than his son.
Ono feels that the family is scrutinizing him to see if he has authoritarian impulses and believes that protesters should be stopped by police in the name of law and order. While Ono believes that this is a test of his ideological inclinations, the Saitos show that personal beliefs are not always dictated by the generation one grew up in. While Dr. Saito says that he approves of the demonstrations as an outlet for public feeling, his son Taro believes in a more controlled society. It seems that no member of the Saito family fought in the war, and the family’s dynamics do not seem defined by intergenerational struggle or a desire to assign blame for what happened during the war.
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Dr. Saito asks Ono whether he sides with Mrs. Saito and Taro in believing his attitude towards the demonstrations is too liberal. Ono is drinking faster than he means to, so he cannot be sure if his impressions are right, but he thinks that the Saitos do not really seem to disagree. He repeats his earlier answer, that it is a shame people are getting hurt.
Ono refuses to address the topic of whom he agrees with , perhaps because he is afraid of being judged for having outdated, authoritarian attitudes, or perhaps because he doesn’t actually know what he thinks.
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Ono is once again struck by how badly Noriko seems to be handling the tension. Taro’s attempts to draw her out of her shell end in awkward silence.
Ono himself has just given a stiff and formal answer, but he focuses on Noriko’s formality instead of his own.
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Dr. Saito brings up Kuroda, explaining that his younger son Mitsuo studies at the Uemachi College. Ono asks Mitsuo if he know Kuroda well, and Mitsuo says he has no artistic talent and so he only knows Kuroda by reputation. Taro changes the subject, trying to engage Noriko on the topic of music. Then Mr. Kyo begins to tell a story.
For Ono this is a pivotal moment in which the issue of his behavior during the war is being examined, but the way Dr. Saito treats the topic of Kuroda suggests that he is merely making small talk about a slight acquaintance.
Themes
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Ono interrupts Mr. Kyo, asking Mitsuo if Kuroda has spoken to him about Ono. Mitsuo is confused, saying that he is not well-acquainted with Kuroda. Ono says that Kuroda likely does not have a high opinion of him. He continues that he is aware that some people think his career was a negative influence, and Kuroda is likely one of these people. Ono thinks Dr. Saito is watching him carefully, as a teacher watches a pupil. Ono continues, saying that he admits he made many mistakes and that his influence was partially responsible for the nation’s suffering. Dr. Saito asks if Ono means that he is unhappy with his work. Ono says that he is ready to admit that he made mistakes, because at the time he acted in good faith.
Ono has convinced himself that it is the strong ideological influence that he exerted that could be a stain on the family reputation in the eyes of the Saito family. Ono has a new perspective on his artistic past: he asserts that he may have been wrong to paint influential works that supported an ideology that has since been debunked, but that he did so in good faith. This stance both flatters his sense of his own artistic importance and sidesteps the fact that he was involved in Kuroda’s being imprisoned.
Themes
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The Relevance of the Artist Theme Icon
Taro tells Ono that he is sure he is being too harsh with himself. Turning to Noriko, he asks if Ono is always so hard on himself. Noriko, who has been staring at her father in astonishment, replies without thinking. She says that he father is usually not hard on himself at all and sleeps through breakfast. Taro is happy to have gotten more of a response from Noriko, and, from then on, the tone changes. The miai goes from a stilted affair to a successful gathering. By the end of the evening, it seems clear that the two families get along and Taro and Noriko like one another.
Ono thinks that his remarks have cleared the air and allowed for the two families to finally put aside the issue of his past and come together. It also seems possible that his interruption to the small talk to make a statement about his artistic career has shocked Noriko out of her shyness.
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Reflecting on the evening from the present moment, Ono says that it was not easy for him to make the declaration he did about his past, but he decided it was prudent. He cannot understand the impulse to lie about the past, because there is dignity in admitting to mistakes made in good faith. He says that Shintaro would be a happier man if he had the courage to honestly admit to his mistakes. Shintaro got the job at the school, and perhaps it was because he took Ono’s advice and spoke to the committee about his past. Ono thinks it more likely, however, that Shintaro continued to lie.
While Ono says his declaration about his past was a difficult admission for him to make, his attitude is also a self-aggrandizing one. While saying that he may have been a negative influence, he is granting himself a great deal of importance. He sees himself as superior to Shintaro because he has acted with more honesty and integrity in confronting his past, but it is uncertain that this is the case.
Themes
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The Relevance of the Artist Theme Icon
Ono now believes that Shintaro has a cunning side to his nature that he had not noticed before. Ono raises the issue of Shintaro’s cunning with Mrs. Kawakami, but she disagrees. She sighs sadly and says that it seems Shintaro will not return to her bar. The construction is continuing outside, and Ono is struck by how out of place the bar will soon be. He encourages her to accept the offer to buy her property. She says she has been in her bar for so long and becomes nostalgic. Ono thinks that it is true that they had all enjoyed the spirit of that time, but perhaps it is better that that world has passed away. He is tempted to say this to Mrs. Kawakami but decides it will hurt her feelings to hear that a place in which she invested so much of her life and energy is gone forever, and rightly so.
Just six months before this moment Ono spent his time nostalgically reminiscing about the good old days with Shintaro and Mrs. Kawakami. Nevertheless, he now sees himself as someone who enjoyed the climate in the pleasure district in the past and cannot be blamed for any of the mistakes the nation made as a result of that patriotic spirit; he understands that it is better to move on and leave the past behind him. He looks with pity at Mrs. Kawakami’s failure to realize this truth that he himself only recently decided upon.
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