An Artist of the Floating World is set in Japan between 1948 and 1950, a time of great upheaval after the country’s defeat in World War II. But the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Masuji Ono, focuses almost entirely on the relatively narrow world of a single city. Detailed descriptions of the building, renovation, destruction, and erasure of the various physical landmarks in his city that are important to him suggest a narrator much more interested in his own legacy than in the larger historical changes gripping his country. The irony of this is that Ono rose to prominence as a nationalist painter, painting pictures whose purpose was to urge Japanese patriots to fight foreign wars and create a dominant imperial power. In the end, the contrast between Ono’s narrow focus on his city and the nationalist and imperialist themes of the work that brought him acclaim proves that Ono was an opportunist who painted propaganda. This runs contrary to his self-portrayal as an independent thinker. At the same time, Ono’s careful descriptions of the city suggest that his true talent lies in capturing accurate depictions of the physical world.
The city Ono describes, which is never named, is where Ono has lived since 1913, and where he rose from obscurity to prominence during the lead-up to the war and during the war itself. Ono’s treatment of the local pleasure district east of Furukawa exemplifies his narrow focus on the world of his own city, instead of the fate of the nation. Ono describes the creation, growth, damage, destruction, and erasure of the local pleasure district where his favorite two bars, the Migi-Hidari and Mrs. Kawakami’s place, are located. This evolution mirrors developments going on in Japan at the time between 1931 and 1950, but Ono ignores the ways in which the region’s development may have been connected to the larger events catalyzing change. The pleasure district first comes into being with the expansion of the city’s tramlines in 1931. The new tramline goes to the suburb of Arakawa, relieving the congestion and crowding in the city. Although Ono does not draw the connection, 1931 was also the year that Japan invaded Manchuria, in an attempt to relieve economic pressure by gaining land and resources. Ono is concerned only with the tramlines and how they open up his city to the suburbs, not with this watershed moment in Japan’s move towards imperialism. Later, as a nationalist painter, and while nationalist sentiment is taking hold throughout Japan, Ono’s prestige allows him to bring official support to the expansion of a patriotic bar, the Migi-Hidari. There, he holds court with his pupils. This is the period for which he is most nostalgic later on—when his work was praised as visionary and important, and when he was able to exert influence. During the war, some, but not all, of the pleasure district is damaged by bombs. While the Migi-Hidari closes, Mrs. Kawakami’s place continues to operate. In the first few years after the war, Ono hopes that the district can be reconstructed and restored to its wartime splendor. But one day the local authorities tear down all the surrounding buildings, leaving nothing but ruins for several years afterwards. While Ono expresses confusion at this, the destruction of his pleasure district corresponds to the post-war period in Japan when the country sought to purge itself of nationalist symbols. Ono seems unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge that, in this new climate, the old nationalist pleasure district has no role. In the final chapter, the pleasure district has been completely rebuilt as a commercial district. Young Japanese office workers, enthralled by hopes of American-style prosperity, now work in the area. Ono sits on a bench in the district and considers the younger generation’s enthusiasm. At the novel’s end, Ono seems to have come to terms with the fact that his legacy has been erased, but he credits himself with having acted in good faith, even if his ideas turned out to have been mistaken. Other landmarks, like Kawabe Park, the Nishizuru District, and the suburb of Arakawa all receive similar treatment. The ways these parts of the city have changed with the times are meticulously recorded, but Ono himself never draws any connection between historical events and the changes he witnesses on the local level.
Ono’s narrow focus on his city stands in marked contrast with his work as a nationalist painter. At the same time as he trains a narrow focus on his immediate surroundings, he paints work with nationalist, militarist, and imperialist themes and global implications. While Ono’s talent seems to be for accurately capturing the look of specific places around him, he chooses to work in whatever artistic style seems most promising at a given time. This opportunistic attitude leads Ono to paint the geishas of pleasure districts using Western style painting techniques when that style of work is in fashion, and then to make a definitive break with this style when nationalism begins to rise in Japan. Because Ono seems mostly unaware of and indifferent toward the world beyond his city, when he claims that strong feeling motivated him to turn towards a propagandistic style in his art, this rings hollow.
In the end, the intense focus on physical spaces and how they look at different moments in time that characterizes Ono’s narrative also suggests what might have been a truer path for him as an artist. Instead of work that focuses on human subjects or political messages, Ono’s true talent lies in capturing a place at a particular time. His first paintings, which his father burns, are notable for their striking verisimilitude, or resemblance to reality. If Ono had not been embarrassed of his “narrow artist’s perspective” and sought to expand it to take in the wider world of political and historical changes, he might have created paintings that would have captured a moment in time and been looked at as a valuable record and significant artistic contribution for many years to come.
City, Nation, History ThemeTracker
City, Nation, History Quotes in An Artist of the Floating World
Coming out of Mrs Kawakami's now, you could stand at her doorway and believe you have just been drinking at some outpost of civilization. All around, there is nothing but a desert of demolished rubble. Only the backs of several buildings far in the distance will remind you that you are not so far from the city centre. 'War damage,' Mrs Kawakami calls it. But I remember walking around the district shortly after the surrender and many of those buildings were still standing. The Migi-Hidari was still there, the windows all blown out, part of the roof fallen in. And I remember wondering to myself as I walked past those shattered buildings, if they would ever again come back to life. Then I came by one morning and the bulldozers had pulled down everything.
But as I say, there is a different mood in the country these days, and Suichi's attitudes are probably by no means exceptional. Perhaps I am being unfair if I credit young Miyake, too, with such bitterness, but then the way things are at present, if you examine anything anyone says to you, it seems you will find a thread of this same bitter feeling running through it. For all I know, Miyake did speak those words; perhaps all men of Miyake's and Suichi's generation have come to think and speak like that.
You may perhaps think I am taking too much credit in relating this small episode; after all, the point I was making in the Tortoise's defence seems a very obvious one — one you may think would occur instantly to anyone with any respect for serious art. But it is necessary to remember the climate of those days at Master Takeda's – the feeling amongst us that we were all battling together against time to preserve the hard-earned reputation of the firm. We were also quite aware that the essential point about the sort of things we were commissioned to paint — geishas, cherry trees, swimming carps, temples — was that they look ‘Japanese’ to the foreigners to whom they were shipped out, and all finer points of style were quite likely to go unnoticed. So I do not think I am claiming undue credit for my younger self if I suggest my actions that day were a manifestation of a quality I came to be much respected for in later years — the ability to think and judge for myself, even if it meant going against the sway of those around me.
“I realize there are now those who would condemn the likes of you and me for the very things we were once proud to have achieved. And I suppose this is why you're worried, Ono. You think perhaps I will praise you for things perhaps best forgotten.”
“No such thing,” I said hastily. “You and I both have a lot to be proud of. It's merely that where marriage talks are concerned, one has to appreciate the delicacy of the situation. But you've put my mind at rest. I know you'll exercise your judgement as well as ever.”
“I will do my best,” Matsuda said. “But, Ono, there are things we should both be proud of. Never mind what people today are all saying. Before long, a few more years, and the likes of us will be able to hold our heads high about what we tried to do. I simply hope I live as long as that. It's my wish to see my life's efforts vindicated.”
Mrs Kawakami was quiet for a moment, as though listening for something amidst the sounds the workmen were making outside. Then a smile spread over her face and she said: 'This was such a splendid district once. You remember, Sensei?”
I returned her smile, but did not say anything. Of course, the old district had been fine. We had all enjoyed ourselves and the spirit that had pervaded the bantering and those arguments had never been less than sincere. But then perhaps that same spirit had not always been for the best. Like many things now, it is perhaps as well that that little world has passed away and will not be returning. I was tempted to say as much to Mrs Kawakami that evening, but decided it would be tactless to do so. For clearly, the old district was dear to her heart — much of her life and energy had been invested in it — and one can surely understand her reluctance to accept it has gone for ever.
Nevertheless, whenever I find myself wandering around Kawabe Park these days, I start to think of Sugimura and his schemes, and I confess I am beginning to feel a certain admiration for the man. For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions. It is my belief, furthermore, that Sugimura did not die an unhappy man. For his failure was quite unlike the undignified failures of most ordinary lives, and a man like Sugimura would have known this. If one has failed only where others have not had the courage or will to try, there is a consolation — indeed, a deep satisfaction — to be gained from this observation when looking back over one's life.
You may gather from such recollections that our devotion to our teacher and to his principles was fierce and total. And it is easy with hindsight — once the shortcomings of an influence have become obvious — to be critical of a teacher who fosters such a climate. But then again, anyone who has held ambitions on a grand scale, anyone who has been in a position to achieve something large and has felt the need to impart his ideas as thoroughly as possible, will have some sympathy for the way Mori-san conducted things. For though it may seem a little foolish now in the light of what became of his career, it was Mori-san's wish at that time to do nothing less than change fundamentally the identity of painting as practised in our city. It was with no less a goal in mind that he devoted so much of his time and wealth to the nurturing of pupils, and it is perhaps important to remember this when making judgements concerning my former teacher.
I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But I now feel it is time for me to progress to other things. 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. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.
'I've no doubt your new leaders are the most capable of men. But tell me, Taro, don't you worry at times we might be a little too hasty in following the Americans? I would be the first to agree many of the old ways must now be erased for ever, but don't you think sometimes some good things are being thrown out with the bad? Indeed, sometimes Japan has come to look like a small child learning from a strange adult.'
‘Father is very right. At times, I'm sure, we have been a little hasty. But by and large, the Americans have an immense amount to teach us. Just in these few years, for instance, we Japanese have already come a long way in understanding such things as democracy and individual rights.
I smiled to myself as I watched these young office workers from my bench. Of course, at times, when I remember those brightly-lit bars and all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing a little more boisterously perhaps than those young men yesterday, but with much the same god- heartedness, I feel a certain nostalgia for the past and the district as it used to be. But to see how our city has been rebuilt, how things have recovered so rapidly over these years, fills me with genuine gladness. Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well.