Ono reflects on a walk he took yesterday over the Bridge of Hesitation. He has just heard of Matsuda’s death and thinks that he had meant to visit Matsuda more often but had only visited once more since Noriko’s marriage talks.
On that visit, Miss Suzuki answers the door and tells Ono that Matsuda is much stronger than he was eighteen months before when he last visited. Ono thanks Matsuda for writing to him during his recent illness. Matsuda says that Ono seems to have recovered. Ono says he is fine now, he just must carry a cane.
Matsuda asks after Noriko, and Ono tells him that Noriko is pregnant with her first child, and Setsuko is also expecting another child. Matsuda congratulates Ono.
Matsuda asks if Ono is painting. Ono says he has started painting flowers in watercolor to pass the time. Matsuda says he is glad to hear it and adds that Ono seemed very disillusioned the last time he visited. Ono says that may be true. Matsuda says Ono always wanted to make a grand contribution. Ono says that Matsuda had been the same way and they both had great energy and courage.
Matsuda recalls how angry Ono used to get when Matsuda teased him for his narrow artist’s perspective. He says it seems neither of them saw things broadly enough. He says they should not blame themselves, they merely turned out to be ordinary men without any special insight.
Ono looks out at the garden. He can smell something burning faintly and tells Matsuda that the smell makes him uneasy and reminds him of bombings. He adds that it will be five years next month since Michiko’s death. Matsuda says the smoke is likely just from a neighbor clearing his garden.
A clock chimes and Matsuda says it is time to go feed the carps in his pond. They go outside, and Ono sees a boy of four or five peering over a fence. Matsuda greets the boy, Botchan, who then dips out of sight. Matsuda says to Ono that the boy comes to watch him every day. He says he wonders what the boy finds fascinating about an old man feeding fish.
Matsuda says that people blame the military, politicians, and businessmen for what happened to the country, but people like himself and Ono made only a marginal contribution. Despite what Matsuda says, Ono thinks that he is not disillusioned, but realizes how much he has to be proud of. He says that they took bold steps and followed their convictions, and he is sure Matsuda felt satisfied as he looked back on his life.
Ono shifts the narrative to recall a proud moment in his life: in 1938, he has just finished the New Japan campaign, which is a great success and wins the Shigeta Foundation Award. He sits in the Migi-Hidari being toasted by his pupils, but it is not until a few days later that he has a feeling of deep fulfillment and pride. He takes a train to Wakaba, intending to visit Mori-san. He is sure that Mori-san knows how much better his career turned out than he predicted, while Mori-san’s prestige has declined and he is forced to illustrate popular magazines to make ends meet. Ono wonders how Mori-san will greet him and prepares himself for either a cold or warm reception. He decides he will not address Mori-san as sensei. But, when he gets to a place on the mountain looking over the villa, he sits down and eats an orange. Looking out at the villa, he has a feeling of triumph and satisfaction. He does not go further to the villa but sits in contemplation looking at it.
Most people, Ono thinks, never feel this kind of contentment. Certainly, the Tortoise or Shintaro would be incapable of it, because they never risk anything to rise above mediocrity. Ono feels that Matsuda likely experienced moments of deep pride like he did, because he acted on what he believed in.
After hearing of Matsuda’s death, Ono walks across the Bridge of Hesitation to the area that used to be the pleasure district. Where Mrs. Kawakami’s stood is a large office building, and where the Migi-Hidari once was, there is a front yard in front of another office building. In that yard is a bench, which Ono thinks is in approximately the same place where his old table in the bar was positioned. He sometimes sits on this bench, as he does in this moment. He watches several young office workers greet one another and notes their happy, optimistic demeanor. He recognizes the same good-hearted spirit that used to hold sway in the pleasure district among the young office workers. He thinks that, despite the nation’s mistakes, the new generation is starting afresh. He wishes them well.
The deepest desire of Masuji Ono, protagonist of An Artist of the Floating World, is to be an acclaimed, significant artist. But while Ono is technically adept as a painter, his understanding of the world—and art’s role in it—is unsophisticated. Lacking a strong personal vision for his art and its message, Ono switches from one artistic movement to the next in pursuit of a style that will earn him acknowledgement as a great artist. In tracing Ono’s trajectory from commercial artist to high-brow Yōga artist to nationalist artist and propagandist, the novel shows a man who spends his life congratulating himself for his bold breaks from his teachers and for his much-needed artistic contributions. At his life’s end, however, it is clear that Ono has only followed in others’ footsteps, making uninspired and unimportant art, or art which reflects and amplifies his society’s worst impulses. In his quest for relevance and significance, Ono produced work that could not stand the test of time, but became irrelevant along with each passing fad, after the world which he painted had “floated away.” The novel suggests that the “relevant” artist, who reacts to the commercial and political currents of the time, may be acclaimed for a moment but ultimately prove insignificant outside of the time in which he or she works.
Ono has ambitions to become a great artist, but no idea what kind of art he should produce towards achieving this end. Despite Ono’s description of himself as someone who courageously follows his convictions and talent, the actual events of his life suggest a man who follows others opportunistically instead of thinking for himself. Ono’s early works as a teen are paintings of landscapes. He has an incredible facility for capturing the way a specific place looks. Throughout his later career, however, Ono’s work focuses on other subjects, suggesting that he may have abandoned his true talent, simple and familiar as it may have been in the eyes of others. Ono’s first paid work as an artist is producing stereotypically Japanese paintings that are exported to foreigners who exoticize the Japanese tradition. Ono is initially pleased that he is earning a living as an artist, defying his father’s predictions that he would live in squalor if he pursued art as a career. He is also glad to be one of his firm’s leading artists. Gradually, however, Ono comes to feel that this commercial work at Master Takeda’s firm is beneath him, and he leaves the firm. Ono spends the next six years at the villa of Seiji Moriyama, or Mori-san. There, Ono paints in the style Mori-san advocates: paintings of geishas from the “floating world”—or pleasure districts—depicted in a more Western style called Yōga. Mori-san urges his students to live among geishas, drinking late into the night and painting scenes from nightlife, but Ono struggles with doubts about whether this lifestyle is really the path to greatness. His father, after all, predicted that he would spend his life living in squalor if he pursued a career as an artist. Once again, however, Ono earns acclaim. He becomes Mori-san’s favorite student and is allowed to exhibit his paintings alongside his teacher’s. After conversations with the nationalist art-appreciator Matsuda, who teases Ono for being naïve and having a “narrow artist’s perspective,” Ono leaves Mori-san’s villa and begins to create paintings with political messages. While Ono portrays this, in hindsight, as another moment in which he took a courageous risk to follow his artistic convictions, he is once again merely exchanging one person’s doctrine for another. He eventually rises to prominence as a nationalist painter in his city. A cohort of younger artists consider him their teacher, and he wins prestigious awards. However, after Japan’s defeat in the war, the culture of militant nationalism is reviled, and prominent nationalist artists commit suicide. Ono is forced into retirement, which he takes as a sign that his work had an important—albeit now-discredited—impact on his society.
As he relates this story of moving from artistic movement to artistic movement, Ono repeatedly claims to be proud for having struck out on his own, following his convictions, even if they proved wrong in the end. He says that this is a quality an artist can be proud of, even if his work does not stand the test of time. But, in fact, the story of Ono’s career shows that he opportunistically sought relevance and recognition by following other’s ideas, and cannot point to any unique contributions of his own. When describing his time painting at the Takeda firm to his proteges, Ono says that what he took from his experience at the firm is the need to “rise above the sway of things.” But Ono left the Takeda firm to go to another place where he was expected to closely adhere to another person’s ideas, and when he ultimately left Mori’s, it was to create art that would adhere to Matsuda’s ideas. Based on his descriptions of his wartime work, Ono seems to have created derivative, unexceptional propaganda posters. It is work that does not seem likely to have sprung from his own original ideas, but rather from copying and adapting other people’s ideas at the moment those ideas were rising to the cultural fore. When Ono sees other artists deciding to strike out on their own, he is far from supportive of their pursuit of originality. Sasaki, Mori’s favorite student early on in Ono’s time living at the villa, develops his own style and is treated as a traitor by the other students living at the villa. Ono records no effort on his own part to defend Sasaki. At the same time, while Ono leaves the villa with the support of Matsuda and his Okada-Shingen society, it seems that Sasaki leaves with no such support or guidance, truly as a result of his convictions. In dealing with his own student Kuroda, Ono is so offended by his student’s innovations that he gives his name to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, leading all of Kuroda’s work to be burned and Kuroda himself to be jailed and beaten.
In the end, other characters’ statements suggest that Ono’s presentation of himself is skewed; his belief that the courage of his convictions led him to paint original, ground-breaking works that have since been discredited seems nothing more than self-aggrandizement. In his final conversation with Matsuda, Matsuda says that they “turned out to be ordinary men with no special gifts of insight” and that their “contribution turned out to be marginal.” Ono rejects taking Matsuda’s words at face value, saying that there was something in the Matsuda’s manner that suggested he believed otherwise. In Ono’s last conversation with his daughter Setsuko, she reassures her father that he does not need to feel guilty for encouraging the militarism of the war years because it was not really culturally significant.
The novel’s presentation of a vain and self-deluding artist whose contributions lose their importance with the passage of time gives the title its meaning. Ono feels encouraged by a lifetime of acclaim for his work to believe that his contributions were important and will be remembered. But, in fact, he was only one of the many artists of his time who painted derivative works in styles invented by others. Although Ono leaves Mori-san’s villa and ceases to paint the geishas of the “floating world” of pleasure districts, the ultimate unimportance of his career makes him an “artist of the floating world” in a different sense. Ono finds a transitory success by shaping his work to fit the demands of specific times and places, and by copying others who have gained acclaim. But this world is neither timeless nor permanent; it is transitory, “floating.” The novel shows how the world in which Ono was an important artist is already floating away, superseded by new currents, ideas, events, and artists.
Masuji Ono, the protagonist of An Artist of the Floating World, is an older man looking back on his life and setting down his recollections. But Ono vacillates between a desire to honestly assess his past and a desire to avoid any feelings regret. Because these motives are incompatible with one another, Ono’s narrative itself becomes distorted by self-deception as he attempts to hide from his conflicted feelings, knowledge of his own culpability, and ultimately—what would be most terrifying of all to him—the conclusion that his life’s work has not mattered. Ono’s account gives away his unreliability as a narrator in several ways. First, his use of an unspecified second-person “you,” as though he is addressing someone who is listening, suggests that he does not want to acknowledge the doubt he feels about his own past. By addressing himself to another person, he acts as though he is explaining events that he understands well and avoids admitting that he feels a great deal of ambivalence about his past. Second, Ono avoids describing certain pivotal events in his life which he cannot force himself to face. By refusing to describe these incidents, he gives away that these are the moments in his life about which he feels most guilty. Finally, Ono often casts doubt on the accuracy of his account, reporting that others do not see events the way he does. This final strategy opens up the possibility that Ono is not only hiding from feelings of guilt, but is either mistaken or lying about his life.
Ono addresses his recollections to an unspecified other person – a “you” to whom he tells his story and whom he imagines will be sympathetic. The “you” is someone who may, or may not, be new to the city and to whom Ono explains the history and geography of the city, like a friendly guide. The tone Ono uses to address this listener suggests how he wants to be seen, or how he wants to see himself as a knowledgeable, even-keeled, friendly, and wise teacher. But because there is no indication of who the “you” might really be, the listener comes to seem like an imaginary construct created by Ono as a coping mechanism. Instead of stating directly that he has mixed feelings about an incident he has related, Ono speaks instead about what he imagines will be his listener’s reaction. In each instance, Ono says that, while a situation may seem one way to the listener, there is actually another way of looking at it. For instance, in describing his final break with his teacher, Mori-San, Ono tries to address what he assumes the listener may be thinking. He says that, while Mori-san’s actions may seem harsh, they are also understandable given Mori-san’s long investment in him and disappointment at his decision to go in another direction with his art. But Ono immediately follows this defense with its rebuttal, saying that Mori-san’s treatment of him was regrettably harsh. By addressing his recollections to this “you,” Ono disguises what he is actually doing: agonizingly rehashing the events of his life and trying to formulate sound judgments about his own conduct and the conduct of others.
While Ono describes most of his interactions in meticulous detail, there are also large gaps in his story. These gaps represent pivotal events in Ono’s life, about which he feels real grief, guilt, or anger. Ono entirely avoids describing the decision to leave his parents’ home to become a painter, presumably having cut off all contact with his family afterwards. He also avoids discussing the deaths of his wife and son, mentioning their deaths only in passing, or while recounting what someone else said to him in confrontation. But the most important omissions in the novel are those that relate to Ono’s relationship with his pupil Kuroda. Through a series of hints, readers learn that Ono had a break with his student Kuroda, likely because Kuroda had decided to employ an artistic technique that Ono did not approve. After parting ways with his protégé, Ono gave Kuroda’s name to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, which led to Kuroda’s being jailed and tortured. But Instead of revealing how this came to pass, Ono focuses his description and analysis on his relationship with his teacher Mori-san, with whom he had a similar break. Ono hopes to alleviate his own guilt by suggesting that his treatment of Kuroda is similar to Mori-san’s treatment of himself. But, of course, this entirely fails to address the very different consequences the two teachers’ treatments of their pupils had for those pupils. Ono avoids recounting—or atoning for—the actual harm he has done others, which reveals the lie in his frequent pronouncements about his willingness to own up to his wartime mistakes. Instead, he seems only to be feigning honesty, while actually hiding from the most difficult truths.
Finally, there are frequent suggestions that Ono may be misremembering events, mistaking who said what, or even making things up. This creates total uncertainty as to the accuracy of Ono’s account. Throughout the novel, Ono often reports what someone has said, only to immediately say that this may have been something said by a different person. For instance, Ono recounts a conversation he had with Jiro Miyake a week before his daughter’s engagement to Jiro fell through. He says that he recalls Jiro saying that those who pushed the nation to continue in a senseless war should be held responsible. Then, after recounting this story, he says that those words sound more like something his son-in-law Suichi would have said. If Jiro really said this, it may have been because he had already decided not to marry into the Ono family, wanting to avoid an association with a propagandist. If he did not say it, then perhaps there was some other explanation for his decision not to marry Noriko. Ono’s account is all that is given, and there is no knowing whether, in giving it, he is remembering events as they occurred. The reliability of Ono’s memories is also questioned by other characters. Early in the novel, Ono records a conversation with Setsuko in which she seems worried that his fame as a painter of propaganda during the war has turned into infamy because of the postwar backlash against nationalist ideas. She suggests that this reputation could hurt Noriko’s marriage prospects. At the end of the novel, concerned because Ono has been discussing a famous nationalist composer who committed suicide out of guilt for encouraging the war, Setsuko tells her father that he should not feel guilty for his nationalist paintings, because they had little influence on the war effort. When Ono asks her about their earlier conversation during Noriko’s courtship, Setsuko protests that she has no recollection of such a conversation and never would have suggested that her father’s career could harm Noriko’s marriage prospects. When Setsuko denies that she and her father discussed how his reputation might impact Noriko’s marriage prospects, she throws the reliability of Ono’s entire narrative into doubt. After all, this conversation with Setsuko and Ono’s subsequent efforts to make sure his past would not harm Noriko’s marriage prospects form the crux of the novel’s plot.
In the end, the unreliability of Ono’s narration leaves open many possible interpretations of Ono’s legacy. On the one hand, Ono may have been nothing but a small-time painter whose life made little impact on the lives of those around him. This raises the possibility that Ono may be preoccupied with debating his own guilt or innocence so as to avoid acknowledging what would be even more frightening to him than guilt: irrelevance. On the other hand, Ono’s art may have been significant to the war effort, and Setsuko may only have been trying to give him a clear conscience when she asserted that his art had little impact—perhaps because she worries that his guilt will drive him to suicide. The novel leaves both possibilities on the table, suggesting not only that memories are often inflected and transformed by later events, but that where honest self-perception ends and dishonest self-deception begins is ultimately unknowable.
Although much of An Artist of the Floating World is dedicated to exploring the reputation and prestige of the artist and narrator Masuji Ono, another, equally important kind of reputation is conspicuously unexplored in Ono’s narrative. Family reputation and prestige—and, on the negative side, shameful family secrets—may be much more important than Ono’s individual reputation to the events that play out in the novel. Ono’s failure to address the issue of his family’s reputation is mysterious. Is it a reflection of his self-obsessed nature that he does not talk about those he has lost and their lives? Or, by focusing on his professional legacy is Ono avoiding addressing his grief at losing some of the most important people in his life.
Throughout the novel, Ono portrays his own reputation as being of central concern to his family as a whole. Only at the end of the narrative does it become clear how limited this perspective may be. The novel revolves around a formal process of matchmaking, in which each side of the “match” investigates the reputation of the other side’s family to determine whether the two children should marry. A year before the action of the novel, a prospective match for Ono’s younger daughter Noriko inexplicably withdraws from marriage negotiations. After this, the Ono family is concerned that Noriko’s new suitor, Taro Saito, might also withdraw from the process because of something about the Ono family’s reputation. Setsuko talks to her father about this possibility, suggesting that he make sure that certain things from the past do not harm Noriko’s prospects. Ono believes that Setsuko is concerned that Ono’s wartime work as a propagandist will cause the Saitos to shun the family, and the rest of the novel explores his efforts to prevent his artistic career from becoming a stain the family reputation. But, at the novel’s end, when Setsuko claims she has no recollection of starting a conversation with Ono about his reputation, this opens the possibility that she was concerned about some other secret from the family past which is never revealed in the novel. A remark that Setsuko makes later in the novel is incomprehensible based on the information Ono has provided about the family but suggests that the incident from the past (which she worried could mar Noriko’s chances of marrying) had nothing to do with Ono’s career, but instead has to do with her brother Kenji. Setsuko says, “There is no doubt Father devoted the most careful thought to my brother’s upbringing. Nevertheless, in the light of what came to pass, we can perhaps see that on one or two points at least, Mother may in fact have had the more correct ideas.” Ono is surprised that Setsuko would say something so unpleasant but offers no insight into what Setsuko might be referring to. This mysterious event in the Ono family’s past may never be disclosed because it would open up the topic of Ono’s relationships with those he has lost: his wife and son, topics which may be too painful to consider.
Ono’s intense focus on his individual reputation as an artist, and his aversion to discussing the reputation of his family as a whole, makes sense when looked at in the context of his own upbringing. Ono’s father tells a fifteen-year-old Ono that he will damage the family’s reputation if he becomes an artist. Although the novel never explicitly describes Ono’s break from his family, his father and mother are never mentioned after this incident, and it seems likely that Ono cut off all contact with his family once he made the decision to go to work as an artist. This rupture seems to have been similar in its finality to the loss of Kenji and Michiko in the war, and similarly is never given any attention by Ono. At the time when Ono’s father burns his paintings, the fifteen-year-old Ono says that his father has “only kindled his ambition” as an artist. At this young age, Ono seems to have decided that by focusing attention on his career, he can protect himself from the painful disappointments inherent to close relationships with family.
At first glance, Ono’s avoidance of discussing his family’s past in favor of discussing his career makes him seem narcissistic, career-obsessed, and coldblooded. While this is possible, it seems equally possible that Ono avoids this topic because it is simply too painful. But just as Ono shows an aversion to describing the painful break between himself and his pupil Kuroda, he shows an even stronger aversion to describing the losses of his family members. To open the topic of family secrets would be to open the topic of the family as a whole, even though Ono’s family has always been been painfully fragmented. The gaps in the narrative where Ono’s feelings about his family’s past can be seen equally to suggest coldblooded neglect, or a sensitive avoidance of truly painful topics.