The novel begins in an unnamed city in Japan in October 1948. The narrator is Masuji Ono, a retired artist who lost both his son and wife during the war which also caused serious damage to his beautiful house. Ono recalls the previous month’s visit of his older daughter Setsuko and her son Ichiro who live in a different town. The whole family is concerned about the marriage prospects of Ono’s younger daughter Noriko, because, a year before, Noriko had been in marriage talks with a man named Jiro Miyake when his family withdrew from negotiations under mysterious circumstances. Noriko is currently at the start of new marriage talks with a man named Taro Saito, but at nearly twenty-six, she is considered old to be unmarried. Ono is annoyed because he feels his daughters believe he knows the real reason why the marriage negotiations broke off and is hiding it from them.
Ichiro is fascinated by a poster for a monster movie that he saw at the train station. Ono decides to take Ichiro to the movie the next day, but his daughter Noriko says she has made plans. Setsuko says that she will stay with her father the next day, and Ono and Ichiro can go see the monster movie the following day. The next day, Setsuko says to her father that it may be wise to take precautions to prevent certain facts about his past from coming into the hands of the Saito family when they investigate the Ono family background. The day after that, Ichiro and Ono go to the monster movie. On the way there, they run into Taro Saito’s father, who tells Ono that he has discovered they have a mutual acquaintance: Mr. Kuroda.
Ono intersperses reflections about the past and present into his account of Setsuko’s visit. He describes the time he spends at Mrs. Kawakami’s place, the last bar standing in an area that had been a pleasure district with a number of bars and restaurants in the years before the war. There, he and his former pupil Shintaro reminisce with Mrs. Kawakami about the old days. Ono also recounts his role in bringing the pleasure district into existence. As a prominent artist, he had written to the authorities and gotten them to place their support behind a bar. The bar, called the Migi-Hidari, became a place where Ono and his students often drank and talked about the role of their art in building a great new future for Japan. Ono also recalls an incident from his own childhood when his father told him he would disgrace the family if he became an artist and then burned Ono’s paintings. Ono also recollects several run-ins with the younger generation. He remembers running into Jiro Miyake and hearing from him that he is glad that the president of his company committed suicide to atone for the company’s behavior during the war. He also recalls a conversation with Setsuko’s husband Suichi at the reception after his son Kenji’s funeral, where Suichi expresses anger over the many members of his generation that were killed during the war and the many leaders who have been too cowardly to take responsibility for their role during the war. Finally, Ono describes his first visit to an old colleague to make sure nothing from his past gets in the way of Noriko’s marriage. He visits his old colleague Matsuda, who has been ill, in the Arakawa district. Matsuda tells him that he will be sure to say only kind things about Ono, but advises that he seek out his former pupil Kuroda, if he is concerned about the investigation.
The second set of recollections are recorded in April 1949 and center around Noriko’s miai, a formal meeting between two families who are considering marrying their children. Ono first describes how he has a falling-out with Shintaro, who asks him to write to a potential employer and tell them that Shintaro disagreed with Ono about work they did together during the war. Ono says that it may seem that he was harsh with Shintaro, but explains that Shintaro’s visit occurred only a few days after the miai.
Ono describes Noriko’s bad mood and incivility to him in the weeks leading up to the miai, and says that Noriko does not know all that he is doing to make sure her wedding goes ahead. For instance, Ono goes to visit Kuroda. He is let into Kuroda’s apartment by Kuroda’s protégé, Enchi, who mistakes Ono for someone else. When Enchi realizes Ono’s true identity, he asks Ono to leave, saying that he is sure Kuroda would not want to see the man who is responsible for his having been beaten and injured in prison and labeled a traitor.
At the miai, Ono drinks quickly and is made uncomfortable by the stilted conversation. Eventually, he interrupts the flow of conversation to make a declaration that he can admit that he made mistakes with some of the work he did and may have been a bad influence in the country. He thinks that Taro’s father, an art expert named Dr. Saito, approves of his statement. After that, the conversation loosens up and it seems clear that Noriko and Taro like one another.
The third set of Ono’s recollections is recorded in November 1949 and centers around another visit Setsuko and Ichiro pay to the family some months after Noriko is married to Taro Saito. During a walk in Kawabe Park, Setsuko says to Ono that she was concerned to hear that he has compared himself to a composer who wrote highly influential nationalist songs during the war and recently committed suicide to atone for his role encouraging the bloodshed. Ono tries to reassure his daughter that he is not considering suicide, but she says other things that he finds upsetting. Setsuko says that he did beautiful work, but it was not at all responsible for influencing anything during the war. Ono points out that, the previous year, she had seemed to think his career a great liability in Noriko’s marriage negotiations. Setsuko says she does not remember any such conversation. Ono is shocked and points out that he made a statement during the miai as a result of her comment. Setsuko says that Noriko and the Saitos all found his declaration very puzzling. Ono defends his statement as appropriate, explaining that Dr. Saito was familiar with his wartime work and seemed to appreciate hearing that his position had changed. Setsuko says that she believes that Dr. Saito was not even aware that Ono was an artist.
Later that day, Ono takes his grandson Ichiro on an outing and promises that he will get Ichiro a taste of sake that night at dinner. That night at the home of newlyweds Noriko and Taro, Ono tries to convince Setsuko to allow Ichiro to taste some sake, but Setsuko refuses. During the dinner, the younger generation discusses how happy they are with the new American-style leadership at the corporations where they work. After Ichiro goes to bed, Ono says to Taro that it is a shame that Dr. Saito and he were not better acquainted sooner, since they both worked in the art world and knew one another’s reputations. Taro agrees with this and Ono looks to see how Setsuko is responding, but she does not seem to register this at all.
Ono intersperses a variety of reflections about his past in his account of this conversation with Setsuko and his reactions to it. He recalls the moment sixteen years before when he moved into his home and, he says, Dr. Saito approached him and said how glad he was to have an artist of his stature in the neighborhood.
He also looks back further into his past, recalling his relationship with a fellow artist nicknamed the Tortoise, who worked with him at Master Takeda’s firm in 1913 or 1914, producing Japanese paintings for export to foreigners. When Ono gets an offer to go to live and study at the villa of the prestigious artist Mori-san, the Tortoise comes with him. Over the next seven years, Ono adopts Mori-san’s style of painting and becomes Mori-san’s prize pupil. But in the early 1920s, Ono gets to know Matsuda, a nationalist art appreciator, who convinces him to take a different direction in his art. The Tortoise is horrified at Ono’s disloyalty to Mori-san’s methods, and Mori-san tells Ono that he must leave the villa. Ono reflects how gratifying it was that, in later years, his own career took off, and Mori-san’s declined.
The final set of recollections is set in June 1950. Ono reveals that he has learned of Matsuda’s death and recounts the visit he paid to Matsuda the month before. On this visit, he tells Matsuda that both Noriko and Setsuko are now pregnant and that it will soon be five years since his wife Michiko’s death. Matsuda says that they were two ordinary men who made a marginal contribution, but Ono says that he believes Matsuda actually feels proud of his life’s work. Ono compares himself and Matsuda to the Tortoise to Shintaro, saying that he and Matsuda can be proud to have boldly tried to do something ambitious that they believed in, while the Tortoise and Shintaro have never tried to rise above mediocrity.
Ono also describes how the area that used to be the pleasure district is now full of office buildings. He sits in a bench outside one of these buildings and looks at the enthusiastic young office workers, whom he wishes well.