An Artist of the Floating World is a novel by Nobel Prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It is set in post-World War II Japan and is narrated by Masuji Ono, an ageing painter, who looks back on his life and how he has lived it. He notices how his once great reputation has faltered since the war and how attitudes towards him and his paintings have changed. The chief conflict deals with Ono’s need to accept responsibility for his past actions and in the expostulation to find a path to peace in his good will for the young white collar workers on the streets at lunchbreak. The novel also deals with the role of people in a rapidly changing environment.
The novel falls under both historical fiction and global literature (Weltliteratur). It is known as historical fiction due to its basis on remembering the past and it draws from historical facts. It is also known as global literature as it has a broad international market and allows for a study on how the world today is interconnected
As World War Two comes ever closer, Masuji Ono, a promising artist who is becoming very respected in his field, breaks away from his Master, becoming drawn into politics and neglecting his art. Ono’s Master is an expert in pursuing the aesthetic ideal in art. Ono finds that the pull of far-right politics is taking all of his attention and he devotes his artistic talents to creating propaganda posters. He becomes a member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department and with this role comes another, Advisor to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities (in other words, he’s a government snitch.) He rather enjoys this role, becoming a police informer and taking part in a political and idealogical witch-hunt similar to that of Joseph McCarthy, although with oppositional political affiliations.
Because of his political beliefs and work, he is a respected and admired figure during the war. However, the end of World War Two in 1945, Japan’s loss, and the concurrent dissolution of the Imperial Japanese Empire, casts a different light on all of those who had been a part of the imperial establishment. Ono is discredited. He is well known to have been a part of the war machine, and is viewed as a traitor to Japan. He is accused of being one of those who have contributed to “leading the country astray”. On top of this, many of those he had denounced to his superiors are reinstated into the positions they had held before the war, and allowed to go back to their “old” lives.
At first, Ono seems open to the idea that he might have brought some of his current difficulties on himself by the actions he has taken and the choices he has made, although he never actually comes out and says that he made mistakes, or that his judgement was wrong. Even when one of the men whom he had turned over to the police confronts him about his activities, he does not seem to join the dots and make the connection between what he initialized, and the abuse that was suffered by those he reported on as a result. For every person who tells him that his actions causes harm, Ono tells the reader of a person who has expressed admiration for him, which he feels cancels out the opinion of the men whose torture and beatings he caused.
Despite some significant self-study, Ono returns to his original position by the end of the novel, and is unable to admit that he caused either harm to others, or to his own position in Japan. He begins the novel as a man either reluctant or incapable of taking responsibility for anything, and he ends the novel in exactly the same way.