Ishiguro: Ono’s Evolution

I must prelude this blog post with a slight apology: some of this blog may not make utter sense. There may be words in places where they shouldn’t be and it may seem like I’m beating around the proverbial bush that is my point of this post (or that I’m repeating myself). I am a chronic migraine sufferer and have been having a migraine heavy week this week, so I am in a perpetual state of “migraine brain” (I forget words, how to form sentences, and, when I first come off of a migraine or am still in the clutches of one, I forget how to speak at all). Today, I am battling a migraine that was accompanied by vision loss earlier, so if the quality of this post seems a little wonky (for lack of a better term), I apologize and I will be sure to return to this post to fix any weirdness when I finally gain my wits back.  

Given the reading assignment for this week, it should go without warning that there are spoilers for the end of Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. I will be discussing key plot and character details that unfold in the second and final sections of the book, so if you haven’t finished or read this book yet (which, I don’t know what you’re waiting for as this is a terrific read), then stop reading NOW! That is all; you have been warned.

Reading Assignment: the rest of Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

November 1949 & June 1950

In the first section of Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, Ono recalls a memory from his childhood in which his father, having discovered his son’s intention to pursue art professionally, burns his paintings in an effort to dissuade his son from his goals. When the memory first begins, Ono is directed by his father to bring all his paintings to the reception room (the room his father had reserved for business). Almost immediately, he asks his son to retrieve the few paintings he did not bring, the ones he was most proud of.

“Perhaps it was my imagination, but when I returned to the room a few minutes later, accompanied by my mother, I received the impression the earthenware ashpot had been moved slightly nearer the candle. I also thought there was a smell of burning in the air, but when I glanced into the ashpot, there was no signs of its having been used” (Ishiguro 44).

Later, after he runs into his mother in the hallway while his father is assumed to be burning Ono’s paintings, he vows to his mother that this incident has only kindled his ambition to pursue art as his career. He exclaims that he does not wish to become like his father:

“‘Once, I was terrified of Father’s business meetings. But for sometime now, they’ve simply bored me. Inf act, they disgust me. What are these meetings I’m so privileged to attend? The counting of loose change. The fingering of coins, hour after hour. I would never forgive myself if my life came to be like that. . .” (48).

Further in his career, a similar scene happens between his mentor, Mori-san, and him. Ono had begun painting not after his mentor’s subjects and techniques, which was indicative of the “floating world” consisting of the illusions of the pleasure houses disappearing by daybreak, but after his own experience of visiting a poverty-stricken town. His paintings, including the one entitled “Complacency” that sparked the animosity between himself, his peers, and his mentor, had gone missing, and Mori-san admits to taking them in an effort to dissuade him from pursuing that theme of work any longer, asking Ono to bring him the few paintings he had hidden away, again, the ones he was most fond of. Ono’s refusal marks the end of his time at Mori-san’s villa, the end of his studies with him, putting him on the path to create the “patriotic” propaganda art that would cause him and his family issues later on in their lives.

But, in his acts of patriotism, he becomes what he vowed not to as a child: his father. During a string of memories that float (if you will) into one another, we finally learn why Kuroda rejects Ono’s attempts at reconnecting with him as Ono turned Kuroda in for pursuing “unpatriotic” artwork.

“‘I am the man on whose information you [the authorities] have been brought here. I am Masuji Ono, the artist and member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department. Indeed, I am an official adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. . .” (182).

After his apprehension, Kuroda’s paintings are burned, being called by the police officers “unpatriotic trash.” While the smell of burning carries through the air like it did when he was a child, Ono is now met with the image of Kuroda’s paintings actually burning in a bonfire, the image he and us, the reader, were spared in the earlier memory from his childhood. Almost instantly, Ono realizes that his act of patriotism was more harmful than he anticipated as he laments that the works being burned were “fine” pieces.

On the surface, this book initially seems to be dealing with the question of intention and patriotism during the war in the scope of Ono’s propaganda artwork. However, by the end of the book, it is evident that Ono has deeper regrets of his actions during the war than the images he painted. A perfect example of this is when he recalls the conversation he had with his daughter on his comparison of himself and Naguchi (a composer who killed himself after he felt guilt that his songs were used as propaganda during the war)  towards the end of the second section of the book:

“‘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'” (192-193).

This divide between the outward causation of his guilt and the true cause is much like the idea of the floating world presented in this text: his propaganda artwork are the promises and sweet words whispered to him in the pleasure houses at night, but come morning, that facade has vanished, and the truth of his actions during the war are what is left in the morning.

Until next time,


Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Vintage Books, 1989, New York.


One thought on “Ishiguro: Ono’s Evolution

  1. Excellent insights! We discussed the doubling nature of the “burning art-works” last night, at some length. Also, I like the way you situate Ono between a feeling of being “simply a painter” and an artist of considerable influence and prestige. Whether or not he is able to work through his guilt and find some kind of redemption is, of course, subject to the reader’s interpretation!


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