Another one by Ishiguro: this time his Whitbread-prize-winning novel of 1986, An Artist of the Floating World. The novel, set in the 1950s, tells the story of Masuji Ono, a Japanese painter. During the Second World War he has broken away from his traditional artistic training to become a propagandist for the Japanese war machine: now he finds that he and his art are increasingly met with hostility.
The ‘floating world’ of the title derives from the Japanese ukiyo. This was originally a Buddhist term signifying impermanence, but was later applied to the night-time subculture of courtesans, music and drink – the ‘floating world’ - that flourished during the Edo period (1600-1868). Ukiyo-e, or ‘floating-world-pictures’, was the art that depicted this subculture.
Ono, by repudiating the artistic ‘floating world’ and suffering the disastrous consequences of his involvement with militarism, ironically enters another ‘floating world’ which has resonances of the original Buddhist one: adrift, friendless, his once-solid reputation destroyed, the certainties he has lived by are now revealed to be as impermanent as smoke.
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