Although much of An Artist of the Floating World is dedicated to exploring the reputation and prestige of the artist and narrator Masuji Ono, another, equally important kind of reputation is conspicuously unexplored in Ono’s narrative. Family reputation and prestige—and, on the negative side, shameful family secrets—may be much more important than Ono’s individual reputation to the events that play out in the novel. Ono’s failure to address the issue of his family’s reputation is mysterious. Is it a reflection of his self-obsessed nature that he does not talk about those he has lost and their lives? Or, by focusing on his professional legacy is Ono avoiding addressing his grief at losing some of the most important people in his life.
Throughout the novel, Ono portrays his own reputation as being of central concern to his family as a whole. Only at the end of the narrative does it become clear how limited this perspective may be. The novel revolves around a formal process of matchmaking, in which each side of the “match” investigates the reputation of the other side’s family to determine whether the two children should marry. A year before the action of the novel, a prospective match for Ono’s younger daughter Noriko inexplicably withdraws from marriage negotiations. After this, the Ono family is concerned that Noriko’s new suitor, Taro Saito, might also withdraw from the process because of something about the Ono family’s reputation. Setsuko talks to her father about this possibility, suggesting that he make sure that certain things from the past do not harm Noriko’s prospects. Ono believes that Setsuko is concerned that Ono’s wartime work as a propagandist will cause the Saitos to shun the family, and the rest of the novel explores his efforts to prevent his artistic career from becoming a stain the family reputation. But, at the novel’s end, when Setsuko claims she has no recollection of starting a conversation with Ono about his reputation, this opens the possibility that she was concerned about some other secret from the family past which is never revealed in the novel. A remark that Setsuko makes later in the novel is incomprehensible based on the information Ono has provided about the family but suggests that the incident from the past (which she worried could mar Noriko’s chances of marrying) had nothing to do with Ono’s career, but instead has to do with her brother Kenji. Setsuko says, “There is no doubt Father devoted the most careful thought to my brother’s upbringing. Nevertheless, in the light of what came to pass, we can perhaps see that on one or two points at least, Mother may in fact have had the more correct ideas.” Ono is surprised that Setsuko would say something so unpleasant but offers no insight into what Setsuko might be referring to. This mysterious event in the Ono family’s past may never be disclosed because it would open up the topic of Ono’s relationships with those he has lost: his wife and son, topics which may be too painful to consider.
Ono’s intense focus on his individual reputation as an artist, and his aversion to discussing the reputation of his family as a whole, makes sense when looked at in the context of his own upbringing. Ono’s father tells a fifteen-year-old Ono that he will damage the family’s reputation if he becomes an artist. Although the novel never explicitly describes Ono’s break from his family, his father and mother are never mentioned after this incident, and it seems likely that Ono cut off all contact with his family once he made the decision to go to work as an artist. This rupture seems to have been similar in its finality to the loss of Kenji and Michiko in the war, and similarly is never given any attention by Ono. At the time when Ono’s father burns his paintings, the fifteen-year-old Ono says that his father has “only kindled his ambition” as an artist. At this young age, Ono seems to have decided that by focusing attention on his career, he can protect himself from the painful disappointments inherent to close relationships with family.
At first glance, Ono’s avoidance of discussing his family’s past in favor of discussing his career makes him seem narcissistic, career-obsessed, and coldblooded. While this is possible, it seems equally possible that Ono avoids this topic because it is simply too painful. But just as Ono shows an aversion to describing the painful break between himself and his pupil Kuroda, he shows an even stronger aversion to describing the losses of his family members. To open the topic of family secrets would be to open the topic of the family as a whole, even though Ono’s family has always been been painfully fragmented. The gaps in the narrative where Ono’s feelings about his family’s past can be seen equally to suggest coldblooded neglect, or a sensitive avoidance of truly painful topics.
Family Reputation, Family Secrets, and Familial Loss ThemeTracker
Family Reputation, Family Secrets, and Familial Loss Quotes in An Artist of the Floating World
It is now already a thing of some fifteen years ago. In those days, when my circumstances seemed to improve with each month, my wife had begun to press me to find a new house. With her usual foresight, she had argued the importance of our having a house in keeping with our status — not out of vanity, but for the sake of our children's marriage prospects. I saw the sense in this, but since Setsuko, our eldest, was still only fourteen or fifteen, I did not go about the matter with any urgency. Nevertheless, for a year or so, whenever I heard of a suitable house for sale, I would remember to make enquiries.
Besides, there was surely much to admire in the idea of 'an auction of prestige', as the elder daughter called it. One wonders why things are not settled more often by such means. How so much more honourable is such a contest, in which one's moral conduct and achievement are brought as witnesses rather than the size of one's purse. I can still recall the deep satisfaction I felt when I learnt the Sugimuras — after the most thorough investigation — had deemed me the most worthy of the house they so prized.
My respect for reception rooms may well appear exaggerated, but then you must realize that in the house I grew up in — in Tsuruoka Village, a half-day's train journey from here — I was forbidden even to enter the reception room until the age of twelve. That room being in many senses the centre of the house, curiosity compelled me to construct an image of its interior from the occasional glimpses I managed to catch of it. Later in my life I was often to surprise colleagues with my ability to realize a scene on canvas based only on the briefest of passing glances; it is possible I have my father to thank for this skill, and the inadvertent training he gave my artist's eye during those formative years.
“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.”
'No. He wasn't a bad man. He was just someone who worked very hard doing what he thought was for the best. But you see, Ichiro, when the war ended, things were very different. … after the war, Mr. Naguchi thought his songs had been — well — a sort of mistake. He thought of all the people who had been killed, all the little boys your age, Ichiro, who no longer had parents, he thought of all these things and he thought perhaps his songs were a mistake. And he felt he should apologize. To everyone who was left. To little boys who no longer had parents. And to parents who had lost little boys like you. To all these people, he wanted to say sorry. I think that's why he killed himself. Mr Naguchi wasn't a bad man at all, Ichiro. He was brave to admit the mistakes he'd made. He was very brave and honourable.'
'Did you have authorization to bum those paintings?’ I asked.
'It's our policy to destroy any offensive material which won't be needed as evidence. We've selected a good enough sample. The rest of this trash we're just burning.'
'I had no idea', I said, 'something like this would happen. I merely suggested to the committee someone come round and give Mr Kuroda a talking-to for his own good.' I stared again at the smouldering pile in the middle of the yard. ‘It was quite unnecessary to bum those. There were many fine works amongst them.'
'Noriko hasn't told you about the miai? Well, I made sure that evening there'd be no obstacles to her happiness on account of my career. I dare say I would have done so in any case, but I was nevertheless grateful for your advice last year.'
'Forgive me, Father, but I don't recall offering any advice last year. As for the matter of the miai, however, Noriko has indeed mentioned it to me a number of times. Indeed, she wrote to me soon after the miai expressing surprise at Father’s . . . at Father’s words about himself.’
'Let me assure you, Setsuko, I wouldn't for a moment consider the sort of action Naguchi took. But then I am not too proud to see that I too was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end.'
My daughter seemed to consider this for a moment. Then she said: 'Forgive me, but it is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father's work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.'