Sculpting Historiography as a Narrative in An Artist of the Floating World


Ms. Sonali Das, Dr. Mousumi Dash, Prof. Ashok Kumar Mohanty, Ms. Salini Sethi

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, SOA (Deemed to be University), Bhubaneshwar- 751030

Dist - Khordha India.

*Corresponding Author Email:



Past is lost for all time to come. But the snapshots of the past linger in the present. That means, the roots of the past contributes to the making of the present consciousness of the identity which does not mean that the character hates the present. Rather the character is trying to relocate himself or herself while traversing from the past memory to the present. Kazuo Ishiguro’s ability to create zones of historicism in his novel infuses some kind of aesthetic appeal and profundity to the novel. The historical milieu of Ishiguro’s tales is more than just a frame of reference for the portrayal of national, cultural and personal identities. These historical events provide an insight to the psychological and emotional trauma that the characters go through while making the readers aware of the significance of reminiscing the past. Thus, Ishiguro has always concluded his works with an optimistic note to his readers. In this present article we are going to explore the significance of historical events in the life of the characters in An Artist of the Floating World and how this becomes a part of it’s narrative style.


KEYWORDS: Kazuo Ishiguro, history, memory, identity, nation.





Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Nagasaki Japan but soon moved to Britain when he was only five years of age, as his father who was an oceanographer joined a British government research on the North Sea. His family settled in the town of Guildford, Southern England where he grew up attending British schools but speaking Japanese at home with his parents. In several interviews, Ishiguro has stated that initially this migration was supposed to be short term, but with the passage of time the sojourn became permanent.


Ishiguro’s second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), is a kind of looking back to his debut novel A Pale View of Hills and an anticipation of his third The Remains of The Day. It tells the story of Masuji Ono, a painter who came to fame as a nationalist creator who painted a lot of propaganda for Japan during the World War II. Ultimately the push for an extended Japanese Empire fell short and so Ono spends much of the time trying to figure out what his identity is in this newly democratic Americanized version of Japan. Ono’s recollections of his past shows his constant effort of self-deception to hide or forget his past memories which has been discussed throughout the novel as against the backdrop of certain historical incidents of a major turmoil and Japan’s cultural change.



The narrative of the novel has been set between October 1948 and June 1950. At the outset of the story we are informed that Ono’s wife and son has been killed in bombings and war and now he is left with his two daughters, Setsuko and Noriko. Setsuko, the elder one, is married and have a child named Ichiro and the younger daughter Noriko, still single as she is having a hard-time in finding a husband, stays with Ono. Ono’s constant pondering of his past acts as an antithesis all through the novel. With his dramatic monologue, where he is seen recollecting and giving all information about the gone years, the audience is sluggishly and essentially summoned to assume Ono’s role in all of the events of the past.


The flow of Ono’s narrative gives hint to the readers of his own history, his contribution and effort to the propaganda of Japan entering into war from being an artist and also at the same time to being a loyal and dedicated public servant, and also his retirement after the surrender of Japan to America. Because of the horrifying effect of the war in Japan, one may possibly expect a rancorous voice, but however, Ono well managed to cope with it. He honestly admits his past errors if any as he says,


‘There are some, Mrs Saito,’ I said, perhaps a little loudly, ‘who believe my career to have been a negative influence. An influence now best erased and forgotten. I am not aware of this viewpoint. There are some who would say it is people like myself who are responsible for the terrible things that happened to this nation of ours. As far as I am concerned, I freely admit that I made many mistakes. I accept that much of what I did was ultimately harmful to our nation, that mine was part of an influence that resulted in untold suffering for our own people. I admit this. You see, Dr Saito, I admit this quite readily. My paintings. My teachings. As you see, Dr Saito, I admit this quite readily. All I can say is that at the time I acted in good faith. I believed in all sincerity I was achieving good for my fellow countrymen. But as you see, I am not now afraid to admit I was mistaken.1


After this, Ono further reflects on what he has done in the prospect of the war,


Of course I do not pretend certain moments of that evening were not painful for me; nor do I claim I would so easily have made that sort of declaration I did concerning the past had circumstances not impressed upon me the prudence of doing so. Having said this, I must say I find it hard to understand how any man who values his self-respect would wish for long to avoid responsibility for his past deeds; it may not always be an easy thing, but there is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them.2


Throughout the dramatic monologue of Ono, an initial impression was may be he is trying to conceal something but eventually we learn that Ono is rather very honest with his involvement or participation in the war.



Ono’s past is retrieved in the form of memory. In Ishiguro’s novel, his protagonists always try to reconcile their personal memories with that of the history of the nation which is usually an unsuccessful attempt.


Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.3


Here what Nora is trying to define is that the people and society are always haunted by both memory and history. History always aims at something more universal and objective than that of memory. History has always been written from somebody else’s point of view which is quite different when it comes to the memory of an individual. So, Ishiguro has significantly illustrated the relationship in addition to the tension between the memory and history in An Artist of the Floating World. Ono’s reminiscing of his past and personal history gives a wider scope to the readers to have an insight to other issues such as literary expressions, power of art on culture, loneliness, identity, the device of memory and the pertinence of past. Memory does intervene in any kind of mental activity. In An Artist of the Floating World and some of his other novels, Ishiguro portrays the effect of historical events and the turning points on the lives of his characters. He further validates to this fact in an interview, as he says,


I’ve always been interested in what happens to people’s values when they have invested all their energies and their lives in the prevalent set of social values, only to see them change. and to see what happens to people when, at the end of their lives, they find the world has changed its mind about what is good and what is bad. But for this particular individual, it’s too late. They had the best intentions, but history has proved them to be either foolish or perhaps even someone who contributed to evil.4


As the plot of An Artist of the Floating World is set in the post-war Japan background but nowhere in the novel there is any implicit description or mention of the war. Yet it lingers around in the narrative of the protagonist, Masuji Ono. Ono’s private memory reveals the nation’s history and his endeavor for his best contribution to his land. But in the wake of the war, his social identity is belittled by his family and other people. Hence, he gets alienated or excluded at certain point. This effect of history on his life is quite evident where he is making an attempt to come in terms with his own values and identity by his memory as opposed to the background of historical alterations. As Ishiguro connotes,


I’m interested in people who, in all sincerity, work very hard and perhaps courageously in their lifetimes toward something, fully believing that they’re contributing to something good, only to find that the social climate has done a topsy-turvy on them by the time they’ve reached the end of their lives. The very things they thought they could be proud of have now become the things they have to be ashamed of.5


Upon Ishiguro’s own view to history, he says,


What I started to do was to use history. I would look for a moment in history that would best serve my purpose, or what I wanted to write about.6



Whether these historical events are accurate or not in the novel that is not the point. Rather how this historical process is having an impact upon the life of the characters is more important. Ono’s retrospection of the past acting as a basic component of history is the crux of the novel. Ishiguro’s exploration of the historical situation is a way of revealing how Ono and other characters in the novel have experienced or suffered the torment of the war, scrutinize the past that they fear to recall, stand up to the arduous truth which they have been avoiding and ultimately discover their own stance or position in that particular historical moment. Thus, Ishiguro here has intermingled Ono’s past and that of the history of the nation.



The narrative of Ono is set against the scrim of a cryptic and antithetical society which has taken a precipitous angle towards a new path in history. In the past years as he was working as a painter in favour of the autocrat government, now he is seen struggling to adapt to this change in Japan after the war. He is struggling between his personal narrative and the tensions going on in the new society where the people and the society itself has been forced to accept and adapt during the post-war. As stated by Silvia Tellini,


Through his eyes the is able to observe conflicting positions that emerge from different ideologies in dispute at a time of intense political upheaval in Japan, insofar as the characters expose their divergent values in face of the changes the nation has to make to move from being a colonial empire to accepting a new system of democracy imposed by the victors.7


This can be confirmed as Ono’s son-in-law, Taro San says,


The changes we made after the war are now beginning to bear fruit at all levels of the company. We feel very optimistic about the future. At times, I’m sure, we have been a little hasty. But by and large, the Americans have an immense amount to teach us. Just in these few years, for instance, we Japanese have already come a long way in understanding such things as democracy and individual rights. Indeed, Father I have a feeling Japan has finally established a foundation on which to build a brilliant future. In fact, Father, just the other week I attended a reunion dinner of my school graduation year and for the first time since the surrender, all those present from every walk of life were expressing optimism for the future. And while I fully understand Father’s worries, I’m confident that by and large the lessons of these past years have been good ones and will lead us all on to a splendid future.8


While narrating his participation and involvement in the war and the nationalist party, Ono himself is doubting whether his past acts were right or wrong. He declares,


I do not think I am claiming undue credit for my younger self if I suggest my actions that day were a manifestation of a quality I came to be much respected for in later years – the ability to think and judge for myself, even if it meant going against the sway of those around me.9


In one of the passages in the novel, Ono is seen advising one of his former students Shintaro to ‘face up to the past’10 which sounds like Ono is indeed saying this to himself.


Ono’s initial struggle of going against his father’s wishes, to being a student under a renowned painter of that time and finally becoming an affluent painter himself as he was known as Sensei, he is somewhat trying to portray the conflicts and differences between the imperious art teachers and those warring students and how that is weighing in to push Japan into the Second World War. As Ishiguro himself says,


I needed to portray this world where a leader figure held this incredible psychological sway over his subordinates. And for subordinates to break free, they had to display a remarkable amount of determination. I’m pointing to the master-pupil thing recurring over and over again in the world.11



The novel, An Artist of the Floating World is set on the edge of a historical inversion, which is a major concern in the novel as Ishiguro says,


How people justify to themselves the kind of life they’ve had. how they try to do something that will give their lives some kind of dignity, to do something and then have to come to terms with their ordinariness. Therefore I’m interested in historical periods that are topsy-turvy, where people who’ve spent their whole lives doing something are suddenly told it’s wrong. The things they could be proud of are suddenly something to be ashamed of.12


In the final passages of the novel, Ono says,


It must have been approaching the lunch hour by then, for across the road I could see groups of employees in their bright white shirtsleeves emerging from the glass-fronted building where Mrs Kawakami used to be. And as I watched, I was struck by how full of optimism and enthusiasm these young people were. I smiled to myself as I watched these young office workers from my bench. Of course, at times, when I remember those brightly-lit bars and all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing a little more boisterously perhaps than those young men yesterday, but with much the same good-heartedness, I feel a certain nostalgia for the past and the district as it used to be. But to see how our city has been rebuilt, how things have recovered so rapidly over these years, fills me with genuine gladness. Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well.13


As Wright says here,


At first glance, Ono’s acceptance of the passing of his world and its values to make way for the new regime seems a painful but necessary and honest one. However, this closing passage is in fact far more sinister than an initial reading suggests. It is necessary to reintroduce the historical context deliberately excluded from the narrative in order to reveal the full extent of the novel’s subversion of this new Japan.14


In the novel, Ono and some of the other characters are seen trying to seek atonement for their past acts for which they are either not proud of or ashamed of, being nostalgic about past sometimes and accepting it as their homes which is now far far away. The post-war years are assembled well through the memories of Ono which portrays an era of dire social dissolution. Thus, the historical events are investigated through Ono’s memories and experiences that describes the collective backdrop of Japan which he had served with his best intentions that was later condemned by the current generation. So, somewhat the narration of Ono becomes evidently one of the self-understanding. Thus, the window of the history is very crucial in the novel.


History is receded into the background and Ono’s struggle against the edge of life is emphasized in the novel. The novel ends with an optimistic note, implying that the characters and the nation will be able to bury their dead past and move forward with a positive hope.



1.      Ishiguro Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber and Faber, London. 1986; pp. 123-124.

2.      Ishiguro Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber and Faber, London. 1986; pp. 124-125.

3.      Nora Pierre. Between Memory and History: Les Liuex De Memoire. Theories of Memory: A Reader. John Hopkins Univ. Press, USA. 2007; pp. 146.

4.      Mason Gregory. An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). Conversations With Kazuo Ishiguro. Edited by Brian W. Shaffer and Cynthia F.Wong. Univ. Press of Mississippi, USA. 2008; pp. 7.

5.      Mason Gregory. An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). Conversations With Kazuo Ishiguro. Edited by Brian W. Shaffer and Cynthia F.Wong. Univ. Press of Mississippi, USA. 2008; pp. 7.

6.      Oe Kezaburo. and. Kazuo Ishiguro. The Novelist in Today’s World: A Conversation (1991). Conversations With Kazuo Ishiguro. Edited by Brian W. Shaffer and Cynthia F.Wong. Univ. Press of Mississippi, USA. 2008; pp. 58.

7.      Tellini Silvia. Identity and Nation in Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. Transnational Literature. Available from:URL:

8.      Ishiguro Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber and Faber, London. 1986; pp. 184-186.

9.      Ishiguro Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber and Faber, London. 1986; pp. 69.

10.   Ishiguro Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber and Faber, London. 1986; pp. 103.

11.   Mason Gregory. An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro. Contemporary Literature 30. 1989; pp. 340-345.

12.   Sinclair Clive. Kazuo Ishiguro In Conversation. Northbrook,IL. ICA Video. 1982.

13.   Ishiguro Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. Faber and Faber, London. 1986; pp. 205-206.

14.   Wright Timothy. No Homelike Places: The Lesson of History in Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. Available From: URL: https:// article/545854 N1 - Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 2014 ER



Received on 04.11.2019         Modified on 14.12.2019

Accepted on 20.12.2019      ©AandV Publications All right reserved

Res. J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2020; 11(1):01-04.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2020.00001.7