Masuji Ono, the protagonist of An Artist of the Floating World, is an older man looking back on his life and setting down his recollections. But Ono vacillates between a desire to honestly assess his past and a desire to avoid any feelings regret. Because these motives are incompatible with one another, Ono’s narrative itself becomes distorted by self-deception as he attempts to hide from his conflicted feelings, knowledge of his own culpability, and ultimately—what would be most terrifying of all to him—the conclusion that his life’s work has not mattered. Ono’s account gives away his unreliability as a narrator in several ways. First, his use of an unspecified second-person “you,” as though he is addressing someone who is listening, suggests that he does not want to acknowledge the doubt he feels about his own past. By addressing himself to another person, he acts as though he is explaining events that he understands well and avoids admitting that he feels a great deal of ambivalence about his past. Second, Ono avoids describing certain pivotal events in his life which he cannot force himself to face. By refusing to describe these incidents, he gives away that these are the moments in his life about which he feels most guilty. Finally, Ono often casts doubt on the accuracy of his account, reporting that others do not see events the way he does. This final strategy opens up the possibility that Ono is not only hiding from feelings of guilt, but is either mistaken or lying about his life.
Ono addresses his recollections to an unspecified other person – a “you” to whom he tells his story and whom he imagines will be sympathetic. The “you” is someone who may, or may not, be new to the city and to whom Ono explains the history and geography of the city, like a friendly guide. The tone Ono uses to address this listener suggests how he wants to be seen, or how he wants to see himself as a knowledgeable, even-keeled, friendly, and wise teacher. But because there is no indication of who the “you” might really be, the listener comes to seem like an imaginary construct created by Ono as a coping mechanism. Instead of stating directly that he has mixed feelings about an incident he has related, Ono speaks instead about what he imagines will be his listener’s reaction. In each instance, Ono says that, while a situation may seem one way to the listener, there is actually another way of looking at it. For instance, in describing his final break with his teacher, Mori-San, Ono tries to address what he assumes the listener may be thinking. He says that, while Mori-san’s actions may seem harsh, they are also understandable given Mori-san’s long investment in him and disappointment at his decision to go in another direction with his art. But Ono immediately follows this defense with its rebuttal, saying that Mori-san’s treatment of him was regrettably harsh. By addressing his recollections to this “you,” Ono disguises what he is actually doing: agonizingly rehashing the events of his life and trying to formulate sound judgments about his own conduct and the conduct of others.
While Ono describes most of his interactions in meticulous detail, there are also large gaps in his story. These gaps represent pivotal events in Ono’s life, about which he feels real grief, guilt, or anger. Ono entirely avoids describing the decision to leave his parents’ home to become a painter, presumably having cut off all contact with his family afterwards. He also avoids discussing the deaths of his wife and son, mentioning their deaths only in passing, or while recounting what someone else said to him in confrontation. But the most important omissions in the novel are those that relate to Ono’s relationship with his pupil Kuroda. Through a series of hints, readers learn that Ono had a break with his student Kuroda, likely because Kuroda had decided to employ an artistic technique that Ono did not approve. After parting ways with his protégé, Ono gave Kuroda’s name to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, which led to Kuroda’s being jailed and tortured. But Instead of revealing how this came to pass, Ono focuses his description and analysis on his relationship with his teacher Mori-san, with whom he had a similar break. Ono hopes to alleviate his own guilt by suggesting that his treatment of Kuroda is similar to Mori-san’s treatment of himself. But, of course, this entirely fails to address the very different consequences the two teachers’ treatments of their pupils had for those pupils. Ono avoids recounting—or atoning for—the actual harm he has done others, which reveals the lie in his frequent pronouncements about his willingness to own up to his wartime mistakes. Instead, he seems only to be feigning honesty, while actually hiding from the most difficult truths.
Finally, there are frequent suggestions that Ono may be misremembering events, mistaking who said what, or even making things up. This creates total uncertainty as to the accuracy of Ono’s account. Throughout the novel, Ono often reports what someone has said, only to immediately say that this may have been something said by a different person. For instance, Ono recounts a conversation he had with Jiro Miyake a week before his daughter’s engagement to Jiro fell through. He says that he recalls Jiro saying that those who pushed the nation to continue in a senseless war should be held responsible. Then, after recounting this story, he says that those words sound more like something his son-in-law Suichi would have said. If Jiro really said this, it may have been because he had already decided not to marry into the Ono family, wanting to avoid an association with a propagandist. If he did not say it, then perhaps there was some other explanation for his decision not to marry Noriko. Ono’s account is all that is given, and there is no knowing whether, in giving it, he is remembering events as they occurred. The reliability of Ono’s memories is also questioned by other characters. Early in the novel, Ono records a conversation with Setsuko in which she seems worried that his fame as a painter of propaganda during the war has turned into infamy because of the postwar backlash against nationalist ideas. She suggests that this reputation could hurt Noriko’s marriage prospects. At the end of the novel, concerned because Ono has been discussing a famous nationalist composer who committed suicide out of guilt for encouraging the war, Setsuko tells her father that he should not feel guilty for his nationalist paintings, because they had little influence on the war effort. When Ono asks her about their earlier conversation during Noriko’s courtship, Setsuko protests that she has no recollection of such a conversation and never would have suggested that her father’s career could harm Noriko’s marriage prospects. When Setsuko denies that she and her father discussed how his reputation might impact Noriko’s marriage prospects, she throws the reliability of Ono’s entire narrative into doubt. After all, this conversation with Setsuko and Ono’s subsequent efforts to make sure his past would not harm Noriko’s marriage prospects form the crux of the novel’s plot.
In the end, the unreliability of Ono’s narration leaves open many possible interpretations of Ono’s legacy. On the one hand, Ono may have been nothing but a small-time painter whose life made little impact on the lives of those around him. This raises the possibility that Ono may be preoccupied with debating his own guilt or innocence so as to avoid acknowledging what would be even more frightening to him than guilt: irrelevance. On the other hand, Ono’s art may have been significant to the war effort, and Setsuko may only have been trying to give him a clear conscience when she asserted that his art had little impact—perhaps because she worries that his guilt will drive him to suicide. The novel leaves both possibilities on the table, suggesting not only that memories are often inflected and transformed by later events, but that where honest self-perception ends and dishonest self-deception begins is ultimately unknowable.
Memory, Self-Perception, and Self-Deception ThemeTracker
Memory, Self-Perception, and Self-Deception Quotes in An Artist of the Floating World
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 have still in my possession a painting by the Tortoise — a self-portrait he painted not long after the Takeda days. It shows a thin young man with spectacles, sitting in his shirtsleeves in a cramped, shadowy room, surrounded by easels and rickety furniture, his face caught on one side by the light coming from the window. The earnestness and timidity written on the face are certainly true to the man I remember, and in this respect, the Tortoise has been remarkably honest; looking at the portrait, you would probably take him to be the sort you could confidently elbow aside for an empty tram seat. But then each of us, it seems, has his own special conceits. If the Tortoise's modesty forbade him to disguise his timid nature, it did not prevent him attributing to himself a kind of lofty intellectual air — which I for one have no recollection of. But then to be fair, I cannot recall any colleague who could paint a self-portrait with absolute honesty; however accurately one may fill in the surface details of one's mirror reflection, the personality represented rarely comes near the truth as others would see it.
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.
'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.'
'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.'
It is hard to describe the feeling, for it was quite different from the sort of elation one feels from smaller triumphs – and, as I say, quite different from anything I had experienced during the celebrations at the Migi-Hidari. It was a profound sense of happiness deriving from the conviction that one's efforts have been justified; that the hard work undertaken, the doubts overcome, have all been worthwhile; that one has achieved something of real value and distinction. I did not go any further towards the villa that day — it seemed quite pointless. I simply continued to sit there for an hour or so, in deep contentment, eating my oranges.
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.