An Artist of the Floating World portrays a society that instills the importance of respect and obedience towards elders in the young, but is, nevertheless, defined by intergenerational conflict and distrust. This conflict becomes particularly fierce after the war, as the younger generation heaps blame on the older generation for leading the country down a disastrous path. Although Ono’s generation seems to have definitively lost in the intergenerational struggle over the country’s values, this can hardly be said to be the end of intergenerational conflict. Instead, the book suggests that the issues at stake will arise over and over again, as a new generation will always come along to challenge the beliefs of those who used to make up the younger generation.
The novel shows intergenerational conflict in a variety of different contexts: between parents and children, teachers and students, and political elites and the young men who are sent to fight when those elites decide to declare war. Ono experiences many of these intergenerational conflicts from both sides. As a young boy, Ono dreams of becoming a painter, while his father looks down on artists’ lifestyles. While Ono never tells his father directly that he despises his values, he becomes ever more determined to become an artist after his father burns his paintings. Ono also comes into conflict with his own children. His daughter Noriko is often critical of her father, criticizing his idleness, his meddling, and his pride. Ono finds these criticisms utterly inexplicable, except as a symptom of Noriko’s anxiety about her marriage prospects. In his interactions with his older daughter Setsuko, Ono feels a sense of hostility or mistrust that is concealed by her polite manner.
Intergenerational conflict also defines Ono’s experiences in the art world, both as a pupil and a teacher. While Ono treats his teachers with courtesy, never criticizing them outright, he still lauds himself for boldly breaking with his teachers’ styles of painting. At the same time, Ono is unable to apply this perspective to his dealings with his own students, like Kuroda. Instead, Ono is critical of his own students when they break from his teachings.
The most acute intergenerational conflict in the novel springs from the outcome of the war, as an entire generation is embittered with the elders who decided to continue the war long after it was clear that Japan would be defeated. The terrible destruction Japan suffered during the war is blamed on the older generation who helmed the government, military, and centers of culture. By blaming the elder generation for losing the war, the younger generation experiences an unusually definitive “win,” as far as intergenerational conflicts go. To atone for what they have done and display their repentance, many members of the older generation kill themselves. This discredited generation is also forced to give way in most matters in the cultural battles between the younger and older generation. Ono, for instance, seems to defer to his daughters in almost everything. Noriko says in a conversation early in the novel that Ono used to be a “tyrant” who ordered them around, but that he has become quite gentle. Indeed, Ono now knows that he should not try to force his point of view on others. When his grandson idolizes American heroes instead of Japanese ones, Ono stifles his urge to encourage his grandson to have more patriotic idols, knowing that this is a point of view his generation held which has been discredited by the defeat in the war.
The victory of the generation who came of age during the war over their parents’ generation is not the end to intergenerational conflict. Instead, the novel hints that the issues that cause intergenerational conflict will surface continually between future generations. The novel shows the cyclical nature of these issues by drawing parallels between the beliefs held in alternating generations. For instance, Ono looks down on his father for being interested in nothing but money and commercial success, preferring to pursue a career in art, even though that career would not be very lucrative. Years later, Ono’s children’s generation have little sympathy for his values, prioritizing prosperity and a good career above all else, in much the way his father once did. Similarly, in the artistic realm, Ono finds the early works that his teacher Mori-san considers “fatally flawed” to be evidence of “how an artist's talent can transcend the limitations of a particular style.” This earlier generation’s style of painting that Mori rejected has growing appeal to the next generation, Ono’s. Ono has a strong bond with his grandson, Ichiro, who seems to share his grandfather’s sense that they are both at odds with the generation that separates them. Often, Ono tries to defy his daughter, Ichiro’s mother, to cultivate this sense of solidarity with Ichiro. Ichiro seems to respond in kind: when Setsuko and Noriko refuse to let Ono give Ichiro a taste of sake, Ono believes Ichiro will be upset, but Ichiro instead consoles his grandfather for having failed to prevail over Setsuko.
The novel shows that the cataclysm of war has precipitated an unusual break in the constant cycle of low-level conflict and tension between generations. The nationalist views and beliefs of Ono’s generation have been completely discredited by the course of the war, and his children’s generation hopes to create a new world on the rubble of the old one. But the novel suggests that similar conflicts will arise anew as soon as another generation that does not remember the war comes along to mount even fresher challenges to this newly established order.
Intergenerational Conflict ThemeTracker
Intergenerational Conflict Quotes in An Artist of the Floating World
"We took him once to the cinema to see an American cowboy film. He's been very fond of cowboys ever since. We even had to buy him a ten-gallon hat. He’s convinced cowboys make that funny sound he does. It must have seemed very strange.”
“So that’s what it was,” I said with a laugh. “My grandson’s become a cowboy.”
Down in the garden, a breeze was making the foliage sway.
Noriko was crouching down by the old stone lantern near the back wall, pointing something out to Ichiro.
“Still,” I said, with a sigh, “only a few years ago, Ichiro wouldn't have been allowed to see such a thing as a cowboy film.”
Setsuko, without turning from the garden, said: “Suichi believes it's better he likes cowboys than that he idolize people like Miyamoto Musashi. Suichi thinks the American heroes are the better models for children now.”
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.
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 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.
'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.'
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.
'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.’
'But there's no need to blame ourselves unduly,' he said. 'We at least acted on what we believed and did our utmost. It's just that in the end we turned out to be ordinary men. Ordinary men with no special gifts of insight. It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times.'
And all the while I turned over in my mind what might occur when I came face to face with Mori-san once more. Perhaps he would receive me as an honoured guest; or perhaps he would be as cold and distant as during my final days at the villa; then again, he might behave towards me in much the way he had always done while I had been his favourite pupil — that is, as though the great changes in our respective status had not occurred. The last of these possibilities struck me as the most likely and I remember considering how I would respond. I would not, I resolved, revert to old habits and address him as 'Sensei'; instead, I would simply address him as though he were a colleague. And if he persisted in failing to acknowledge the position I now occupied, I would say, with a friendly laugh, something to the effect of: 'As you see, Mori-san, I have not been obliged to spend my time illustrating comic books as you once feared.'