When I was a child I remember my mum having a blue and white plate. It was in the style of Chinese willow pattern but the stamp on the back said ‘made in Japan’, and depicted a kimono clad figure of indeterminate sex standing on an arched bridge over a softly flowing river, dwarfed by mountain ranges to the left and right.
If the Japanese plate was my mum’s pride and joy, my dad’s was an innovative device: a Casio calculator. We didn’t see it at the time but my parents’ preferences neatly symbolised how Japan had repositioned itself in the world, its metamorphosis from old-world imperial to new-world technological powerhouse.
An Artist in the Floating World, set in Japan between 1948 and 1950, captures the transition. Masuji Ono lives in a traditionally styled house, parts of which remain bomb damaged, whereas his married daughter loves her modern ‘Western design’ apartment; his grandson Ichiro prefers the Lone Ranger and Popeye the Sailorman to Lord Yoshitsune or the Ninja of the Wind; and across the little wooden bridge from his house the old “floating world” pleasure district is rapidly being replaced by modern office blocks.
On a national level, of course, the country is recovering from the Second World War and “the surrender”. And on a personal level, Masuji is recovering from devoting his talent and energy to the Imperial cause. How do you deal with the knowledge that, with all good intentions, the mast you nailed your colours to was shameful?
The story is told in the first person by Masuji, a famous artist, now retired “because Japan lost the war”, his paintings “tidied away for the moment.” Gradually we come to understand that he’d turned his back on painting “pleasure district women” in favour of pictures pushing the sentiment that Japan should “forge an empire…use our strength to expand abroad.”
Which brings us to another question: what is the role of art, or the artist, in society? Masuji is that most wonderful of things, an unreliable narrator. He presents himself as “a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end” whereas in his elder daughter’s eyes his work “had hardly to do with these larger matters…Father was simply a painter.”
The Artist is set in Japan with wholly Japanese characters and although written in English feels as if it could have been translated from Japanese. In the introduction to my paperback copy Ishiguro talks of “finding an elegant yet slightly stilted register that would suggest the rhythms and stylised formality of the Japanese language running all the time behind the English.” He pulls it off perfectly. No surprise, then, that The Artist won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1986 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year.
It makes we want to see Japan, the old “floating world” Japan (though I accept it has probably gone apart from bits recreated for tourists). And I wish I’d kept that willow pattern plate.
*** Highly recommended