In the face of the misery in his homeland, the artist Masuji Ono was unwilling to devote his art solely to the celebration of physical beauty. Instead, he put his work in the service of the imperialist movement that led Japan into World War II.
Now, as the mature Ono struggles through the aftermath of that war, his memories of his youth and of the “floating world”—the nocturnal world of pleasure, entertainment, and drink—offer him both escape and redemption, even as they punish him for betraying his early promise. Indicted by society for its defeat and reviled for his past aesthetics, he relives the passage through his personal history that makes him both a hero and a coward but, above all, a human being.
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About the Author
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954. His family moved to England in 1960. He attended the University of Kent at Canterbury and the University of East Anglia. His novels have been nominated four times for the Man Booker Prize, which Remains of the Day won in 1989. A Pale View of Hills, his first novel, won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature and has been translated into thirteen languages. An Artist of the Floating World won the 1986 Whitbread of the Year Award and has been translated into fourteen languages. His most recent novel is Never Let Me Go. He currently lives in London.
Jessica Hische is a letterer, illustrator, typographer, and web designer. She currently serves on the Type Directors Club board of directors, has been named a Forbes Magazine "30 under 30" in art and design as well as an ADC Young Gun and one of Print Magazine’s "New Visual Artists". She has designed for Wes Anderson, McSweeney's, Tiffany & Co, Penguin Books and many others. She resides primarily in San Francisco, occasionally in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as ‘the Bridge of Hesitation’, you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees. Even if it did not occupy such a commanding position on the hill, the house would still stand out from all others nearby, so that as you come up the path, you may find yourself wondering what sort of wealthy man owns it.
But then I am not, nor have I ever been, a wealthy man. The imposing air of the house will be accounted for, perhaps, if I inform you that it was built by my predecessor, and that he was none other than Akira Sugimura. Of course, you may be new to this city, in which case the name of Akira Sugimura may not be familiar to you. But mention it to anyone who lived here before the war and you will learn that for thirty years or so, Sugimura was unquestionably amongst the city’s most respected and influential men.
If I tell you this, and when arriving at the top of the hill you stand and look at the fine cedar gateway, the large area bound by the garden wall, the roof with its elegant tiles and its stylishly carved ridgepole pointing out over the view, you may well wonder how I came to acquire such a property, being as I claim a man of only moderate means. The truth is, I bought the house for a nominal sum—a figure probably not even half the property’s true value at that time. This was made possible owing to a most curious—some may say foolish—procedure instigated by the Sugimura family during the sale.
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. It was one of my pupils who first brought it to my attention that Akira Sugimura’s house, a year after his death, was to be sold off. That I should buy such a house seemed absurd, and I put the suggestion down to the exaggerated respect my pupils always had for me. But I made enquiries all the same, and gained an unexpected response.
I received a visit one afternoon from two haughty, grey-haired ladies, who turned out to be the daughters of Akira Sugimura. When I expressed my surprise at receiving such personal attention from a family of such distinction, the elder of the sisters told me coldly that they had not come simply out of courtesy. Over the previous months, a fair number of enquiries had been received for their late father’s house, but the family had in the end decided to refuse all but four of the applications. These four applicants had been selected carefully by family members on grounds purely of good character and achievement.
‘It is of the first importance to us’, she went on, ‘that the house our father built should pass to one he would have approved of and deemed worthy of it. Of course, circumstances oblige us to consider the financial aspect, but this is strictly secondary. We have therefore set a price.’
At this point, the younger sister, who had barely spoken, presented me with an envelope, and they watched me sternly as I opened it. Inside was a single sheet of paper, blank but for a figure written elegantly with an ink brush. I was about to express my astonishment at the low price, but then saw from the faces before me that further discussion of finances would be considered distasteful. The elder sister said simply: ‘It will not be in the interests of any of you to try to outbid one another. We are not interested in receiving anything beyond the quoted price. What we mean to do from here on is to conduct an auction of prestige.’
They had come in person, she explained, to ask formally on behalf of the Sugimura family that I submit myself—along, of course, with the other three applicants—to a closer investigation of my background and credentials. A suitable buyer could thus be chosen.
It was an eccentric procedure, but I saw nothing objectionable about it; it was, after all, much the same as being involved in a marriage negotiation. Indeed, I felt somewhat flattered to be considered by this old and hidebound family as a worthy candidate. When I gave my consent to the investigation, and expressed my gratitude to them, the younger sister addressed me for the first time, saying: ‘Our father was a cultured man, Mr Ono. He had much respect for artists. Indeed, he knew of your work.’
In the days which followed, I made enquiries of my own, and discovered the truth of the younger sister’s words; Akira Sugimura had indeed been something of an art enthusiast who on numerous occasions had supported exhibitions with his money. I also came across certain interesting rumours: a significant section of the Sugimura family, it seemed, had been against selling the house at all, and there had been some bitter arguments. In the end, financial pressures meant a sale was inevitable, and the odd procedures around the transaction represented the compromise reached with those who had not wished the house to pass out of the family. That there was something high-handed about these arrangements there was no denying; but for my part, I was prepared to sympathize with the sentiments of a family with such a distinguished history. My wife, however, did not take kindly to the idea of an investigation.
‘Who do they think they are?’ she protested. ‘We should tell them we want nothing further to do with them.
‘But where’s the harm?’ I pointed out. ‘We have nothing we wouldn’t want them to discover. True, I don’t have a wealthy background, but no doubt the Sugimuras know that already, and they still think us worthy candidates. Let them investigate, they can only find things that will be to our advantage.’ And I made a point of adding: In any case, they’re doing no more than they would if we were negotiating a marriage with them. We’ll have to get used to this sort of thing.’
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. And certainly, the house is one worth having suffered a few inconveniences for; despite its impressive and imposing exterior, it is inside a place of soft, natural woods selected for the beauty of their grains, and all of us who lived in it came to find it most conducive to relaxation and calm.
For all that, the Sugimuras’ high-handedness was apparent everywhere during the transactions, some family members making no attempts to hide their hostility towards us, and a less understanding buyer might well have taken offence and abandoned the whole matter. Even in later years I would sometimes encounter by chance some member of the family who, instead of exchanging the usual kind of polite talk, would stand there in the street interrogating me as to the state of the house and any alterations I had made.
These days, I hardly ever hear of the Sugimuras. I did, though, receive a visit shortly after the surrender from the younger of the two sisters who had approached me at the time of the sale. The war years had turned her into a thin, ailing old woman. In the way characteristic of the family, she made scant effort to hide the fact that her concern lay with how the house—rather than its inhabitants—had fared during the war; she gave only the briefest of commiserations on hearing about my wife and about Kenji, before embarking on questions concerning the bomb damage. This made me bitter towards her at first; but then I began to notice how her eyes would roam involuntarily around the room, and how she would occasionally pause abruptly in the midst of one of her measured and formal sentences, and I realized she was experiencing waves of emotion at finding herself back in this house once more. Then, when I surmised that most of her family members from the time of the sale were now dead, I began to feel pity for her and offered to show her around.
The house had received its share of the war damage. Akira Sugimura had built an eastern wing to the house, comprising three large rooms, connected to the main body of the house by a long corridor running down one side of the garden. This corridor was so extravagant in its length that some people have suggested Sugimura built it—together with the east wing—for his parents, whom he wished to keep at a distance. The corridor was, in any case, one of the most appealing features of the house; in the afternoon, its entire length would be crossed by the lights and shades of the foliage outside, so that one felt one was walking through a garden tunnel. The bulk of the bomb damage had been to this section of the house, and as we surveyed it from the garden I could see Miss Sugimura was close to tears. By this point, I had lost all my earlier sense of irritation with the old woman and I reassured her as best I could that the damage would be repaired at the first opportunity, and the house would be once more as her father had built it.
I had no idea when I promised her this that supplies would remain so scarce. For a long time after the surrender one could wait weeks just for a particular piece of wood or a supply of nails. What work I could do under such circumstances had to be done to the main body of the house—which had by no means entirely escaped damage—and progress on the garden corridor and the east wing has been slow. I have done what I can to prevent any serious deterioration, but we are still far from being able to open that part of the house again. Besides, now with only Noriko and myself left here, there seems less urgency to be extending our living space.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
To read the blurb on the back of this novel you'd think this was a book about a man coming to terms with his past. And it is. But that's not all it is, nor is it even the main thrust of the novel. Ono is an artist who once employed his talents toward a vision of a stronger Japan. A vision which would eventually lead Japan into WWII. Now, some years after the war, Ono reminisces about his younger days, and while he is able to admit his vision was ultimately wrong for Japan, he is still proud of the will which drove him. Even if his vision was a mistake, he takes pride in standing for, and working toward, a goal he believed in; which is more than most people ever do. Framing this history is the story of Ono's current negotiations to arrange a marriage for his younger daughter, Noriko. Noriko however belongs to the emerging generation which is looking to cast off the old ways of traditional Japan. Caught somewhere in the middle is Ono's elder daughter, Setsuko, who although still acts the subservient daughter, clearly shares her sister's outlook. Ono is a man clinging desperately to outmoded traditions, while the world around him rapidly modernizes. Willfully blind to his own failings, both past and present, he is at once both pathetic and sympathetic. This really isn't a novel about a man coming to terms with his past, but more a novel about a man coming to terms with the future.
The early novels by Kazuo Ishiguro deal with loneliness, isolation ('A Pale View of Hills', 'An artist of the Floating World') and the inability to respond to the feelings of others (The Remains of the Day). Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain at the age of five. It is 1948. Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War II, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated painter, Masuji Ono, fills his days attending to his garden, his house repairs, his two grown daughters and his grandson; his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet lantern-lit bars. He should have a tranquil retirement. But as his memories continually return to the past - to a life and career deeply touched by the rise of Japanese militarism - a dark shadow begins to grow over his serenity... It's the tragedy of a man who supported the wrong political ideas and somehow hasn't come to terms with his wrong judgement.
I have rather mixed feelings about this novel. The main character is constantly trying to reconcile his conflicted feelings during the entire novel. As a young artist in 1940's Japan, he gives up studying the "floating world" of pleasure and uses his talents to create propoganda for Imperialist Japan. After the war is over and Japan has npw taken on a more westernized mentality, he is now looked on as a traitor. Though he now admits he has made mistakes, he is still proud of the work he has done and does not understand why some treat him as an outcast. Interesting novel. I enjoyed learning more about the Japanese mindset than the actual storyline. Still, I would give this one a try.
'Artist' stands alone as a gem in spite of the popularity of his other books. Ishuguro masterly blends character development with insights about the past and present life of our main character with such finess that many paragraphs have their own artistic value.If you are new to Kazuo or are an old fan this one is not to be overlooked. The story will also offer insight into the historical dilemma found within Japan. Ishuguru gives the world a new perspective of mankind and moral decision making. With prose as lovely as poetry and scenes painted with tender words and patience you will enter the artists floating world and realize you have experienced true human experience with all its insecurities and insights.
This was a very nice book, presenting a uniquely surreal and intriging view of Japanese life pre- and post-WW2. I was deeply troubled by this book, however, as it is far too similar to his previous work in 'The Remains of the Day' and 'A Pale View of the Hills.' Both previous works have a character trying to overcome denial through recounting tales of important espisodes from their past leading up to the second world war. Same with this one. The only major difference is that while the previous works take place in England, this one is set in Japan. If it wasn't for the saving grace of incorporating his cultural heritage so vividly into this book, I would have hated it for being almost EXACTLY like his previous two in character development and plot. On its own, it's an intriguing and deeply satisfying work, and worth reading even if you've read his older books. But please, can we move on to something new, Ishiguro?
This book japan aritist was special because japan can use it a book or enything make you what ever make you feel better and i like all of your writing it was special to me because it you more writing to share i love to share my to who wrote this book was great i have so many books of your it special and i love your storyes
Ishiguro writes well, and it's curious because I know very few about Japanese people except his electronic goods and cars. From where come all this? I find the personnage of the painter Ono is very acquiescent while he tell us another japanese people killed themselves. For the occidental it seems it hasn't no place for intermediate gestures. Yet it's surprising a plastic artist should play so important place in the preparation of war with propagandistic pictures, draws, etc. I think in Spain, neither Picasso was considered so important about the civil war. Writers, I think are different. Ishiguro says this was so in Japan, but this is the case there was another people as ex- generals and military people affected by a kind of amnesia and directing the new entreprises of the post - war Japan. Curiously, Ono has a moment of doubt after a big success- the Sigheta prize- because inexplicably he doesn't attain to see to Mori- San, his old master in the Floating, ligth world of sake, sweet nigths and women. The author doesn't explain why he does so and after arrtiving by railway he only rests eating some oranges; indeed we are authorized to think Ono at last wasn't no so sure of his merits in getting close to war japanese politics of thirties.