To what extent does Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World challenge our understanding on the nature of context and belief?
Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World is an introspective post-modern exploration of the individually-perceived and manipulated vision characters carry for themselves within the past and present of a dynamic context. In the backdrop of a post-war Japan coming to terms with its history, Ishiguro crafts the ambiguous protagonist of Matsuji Ono as he struggles to authenticate his identity and history. An Artist of the Floating World significantly challenges our understanding on context and belief by illustrating how their mutually synergistic nature allows one to influence the other.
A key contextual point raised in Ishiguro’s text is the role of changing values. Internal struggle from Ono’s difficulties are adapted to a post-war modern Japan, one in which he sees himself becoming increasingly less relevant and his views shut out and condemned.
As former values of nationalism and Bushido-style militarism are contrasted with that of renewal and openness, Ono is forced to come to terms with his life, often failing to do so by retreating to a deceptive understanding of events. The symbol of the house’s destruction for the war’s impact invokes pathos and despair. As Ono recounts “Miss Sugimura’s close tears” and the “water that came dripping through” not only represents the physical destruction caused by the war, but the impact of a shift in the values and dominant paradigms which would come to emerge in post-war Japan. Critically, the novel is not simply a flawed retelling by a flawed character in some flawed period of Japan’s history, but uses Ono as a character to characterise the struggle to unravel beliefs about the past under the presence of the present. Ono often becomes confronted by perceived “undesirable and decadent influences” which clash with his personal context. Furthermore, the intergenerational conflict which persists throughout the novel is microcosmically displayed in Ono’s own family, such as in the conflict over the bamboo shoots between Noriko and Ono who suggests “you have to take into account where the younger shoots dominate”. In alluding to the new dominant values of post-war Japan, Ono highlights his individual disempowerment in the face of new context. His ambiguous and contradictory response to Ichiro when asked about his past, in replying ““I’m sure a bright boy like you can remember all sorts of things” is ironically representative of his own inability to face his past beliefs as a result of his context. By highlighting how changing values impact the ability for old beliefs to engage in a new world, Ishiguro challenges the audience’s understanding of context and belief through the depiction of Ono’s longing to rediscover a new fallen place in Japan.
The inseparable and intrinsic link between memory, time and thoughts feeds human responses as a consequence of context. Through the passage of time, Ishiguro depicts fading memories being replaced with unrealised idealisation. A common theme throughout Ono’s ‘recollection’ of events is that of the praise he has received over time, such as Kuroda’s speech in the Migi-Hidari as Kurodo suggests that “his reputation will become all the greater, our proudest honour will be to tell others that we were once the pupils of Masuji Ono”, whilst highlighting “Sensei’s modest nature”. Yet, the dynamic and changing values of the world instead lead Kurodo and the post-war Japanese society to reject the values of the past. The idealisation of Ono’s past memory in a distinct form of nostalgia, which metaphorically exists in the pastimes of the Migi-Hidari when Ono “[tries] to recall that evening”, but instead finds “memory of it merging with the sounds and images from all those other evenings”. Ono’s recollection of the fleeting pleasures of the previous ‘floating world’ provide a form of escapism from the current context, thereby influencing beliefs about his identity and memory. The conflict between past and present contexts becomes apparent as a degree of Ono’s underlying thoughts continue to permeate in perceptions and recollections, as Ono “feel a certain nostalgia for the past and the district it used to be”, illustrating how memories are shaped by present contexts and beliefs surrounding it. Not only does Ishiguro illustrate the subjective nature of memory, but it reveals the power of social values in defining interpretations. In his flashback to an encounter with Miyake, he chronicles how “his whole posture seemed to be fixed on the verge of bowing”, as a symbol for his own view on Japan’s current state. However, his attitude towards Miyake’s servitude contradicts that of his own during the war, and through this scene Ishiguro exposes how beliefs and self-perceptions can become tainted by subjective representations of context. In encapsulating the links between memory, time and thoughts, Ishiguro explores how beliefs can become subjugated by interpretive approaches to context.
Ishiguro illustrates a quest for personal authentication, meaning, and an ‘ideal world’, something which Ono had achieved under an earlier context only for his beliefs as the dominant values shift. The Migi-Hidari acts as a metaphor for the old patriotic Japan which Ono often reminisces of, and he both physically and metaphorically retreats here to recollect the times of the past which no longer exist. Ono euphemistically downplays the new cultural shift as “cynicism” and uses the metaphor of a “thread of this same bitter feeling” in reference to the new values held by a context which renounces his beliefs. The phenomenon of Ono’s struggle in the post-war Japanese society is epitomised as what Yugin Teo described as a “search for meaning and utopia … a deep longing for a [better] world”, in that Ono seeks a world where his beliefs are once again validated. From the angle of Kuroda, however, his own search for meaning, in following Ono, meets a bitter end as expressed through Enchi’s conversation with Ono, in which Enchi holds Ono responsible for Kuroda’s suffering, “Traitor, that’s what they called him. Traitor, every minute of every day. But now we know who the real traitors were”. As values & ideologies collide and power balances shift under the umbrella of changing contexts, it demonstrates how human perceptions are responsive to both context and belief, and Ishiguro depicts the synergetic relationship between context and belief as one which intrinsically influences the other. In a conversation with Ono, Matsuda eventually relents to the realisation that “in the end neither of us had a broad enough view”, and this realisation of irrelevance in what Ono calls “disillusionment” and the brutal impact of cultural change forces Matsuda into acceptance. It is these kinds of changing values which have the power to spread its influence toward the quest for meaning and the ideal.
An Artist of the Floating World is Ishiguro’s exploration of the human response to its surroundings, as he explores the role of a protagonist who has been left behind in a world in which he seemingly no longer has a place. In a quest for meaning, the apparent truths behind beliefs are questioned as contexts, values and paradigms shift over time, and Ishiguro does not explore the nature of any singular context (neither post-war Japan nor the neo-conservative British political environment this book was produced within), but rather the impact of contextual changes on beliefs, and in turn its effect on the individual.