a. Bridge of Hesitation (symbol)
This bridge is the most familiar landmark in An Artist of the Floating World, mentioned at the beginning of the novel and regularly throughout. On one level, its symbolism is fairly clear. Ono has to cross the bridge to get home physically, while emotionally he is hesitant, torn between his memories and his future, his ego and the truth. In fact, one of the reasons that it takes so long for us to figure out what happened in his past is because Ono is so hesitant as a narrator. He shares something and then obscures something else, or insists that he cannot recall the exact event in question, revealing his entire story with painstaking slowness. The presence of a bridge with such an evocative name lets us know that Ono’s crossing is as metaphorical as it is literal. The bridge’s symbolism is deepened, however, when Ono shares the story of its name. Men, he tells us, hesitated before either going home or crossing the bridge to the city’s pleasure district. Therefore, we understand that the bridge is both a site of Ono’s own attachment to that old district, and a lost communal symbol of that district, part of the vocabulary of a now-nonexistent subculture.
b. Samurai (symbol)
Samurai were Japanese warriors in the Medieval and Early Modern ages. Here, they are symbols of Japanese sovereignty and patriotism. When Ono catches his grandson pretending to be a cowboy, he presents a list of more Japanese alternatives which he believes are more exciting. Samurai are featured on this list. To Ono, samurai recall a version of independent Japan, free of American occupation. Later, while working on his painting “Complacency,” Ono portrays a group of desperately poor boys in poses evocative of samurai. His implication here seems to be that such children could be impressive, powerful, and worthy of respect, but for Japan’s lack of military might and national pride. The samurai, then, are not merely symbols to the reader, but are in fact symbolic within Ono’s consciousness. They arise whenever he seeks a shorthand for his vision of an ideal and venerable Japan.
c. Reception Room (symbol)
Reception rooms in An Artist of the Floating World are places where intimacy and formality converge in strange ways. They essentially symbolize the unknowability of people, or the unknowable aspect of people, even one’s own loved ones or oneself. Ono’s first association with reception rooms comes from his father. Though he was taught to act reverently around reception rooms and to avoid entering them, his father begins to insist that they have “business meetings” in their household’s reception room. It is also in this room that Ono’s father burns his paintings. Their conversations in these moments are full of conflict and emotion, but they communicate with euphemistic language, unable and unwilling to say what they mean. Later, Ono has other conversations in other reception rooms with important figures in his life, such as his daughter Setsuko. This conversation, too, hints at each character’s deepest concerns, but neither character states his or her meaning directly. Ono mentions at one point that some of his artistic imagination may have been rooted in the long-forbidden reception room of his childhood: its mysteriousness ignited his curiosity, prompting him to imagine the inside of the room. This idea gets at the heart of Ishiguro’s project in this novel. He shows us glimpses of people, including his main character, and allows us to construct a vivid image of that person’s internal and external life. Yet, all throughout, Ishiguro works through implication rather than direct information. Much of this book’s satisfying tension comes from the gulf between what the narrator states and what the reader infers. Therefore, the symbol of the reception room is useful for understanding not only Ono’s character, but the novel’s form as a whole.
d. Sake (symbol)
Sake, a wine made from rice, crops up repeatedly in conversations between Ono and his grandson Ichiro. Ono wishes to give Ichiro sake, which he sees as a symbol of a specifically Japanese kind of adult masculinity. When Ono’s daughters disagree with him over whether to serve Ichiro sake, the symbolism of the drink becomes even clearer. As he and Ichiro agree, women cannot understand or appreciate sake themselves, since it is linked to masculinity. As he often does in this novel, Ishiguro introduces this symbol via his main character only to pull back and make us question whether we, too, speak to that same symbolic language. While sake stands for one thing in Ono’s eyes, his daughters clearly disagree, and even Ichiro seems to have a more literal understanding of the beverage. He seems interested in trying it out of curiosity, but when his grandfather becomes emotionally invested, Ichiro reassures him that there is no need to worry. Ichiro, it seems, recognizes that sake is an important symbol to Ono—but Ichiro himself has detached the sake from its symbolic resonance.
e. Cowboys (symbol)
Ono is upset when he discovers that his grandson likes to pretend to be the Lone Ranger. Cowboys in general symbolize the encroachment of American power, not only in the form of military occupation but in the less-obvious form of cultural hegemony. Ono, therefore, feels offended and bewildered that his grandson takes an interest in these icons of American culture, while more or less ignoring Japanese culture. Moreover, cowboys themselves are historically and symbolically linked to the American frontier. Therefore, they embody American ideals of expansion, self-sufficiency, and attachment to land. It makes sense, then, that they are particularly fraught for Ono. At this moment in Japanese history, Japan’s goals of expansion are thwarted, and Japanese people are unable to have a self-sufficient and independent government. Therefore, Ichiro’s choice of cowboys as an object of fascination adds insult to injury for his grandfather.
2. MOTIF OF FIRE
Three times during this novel, a certain scene repeats itself, almost exactly. An older man, usually a father figure, discovers that his son or protegé has been making art of a variety that the older man deems disagreeable. The older man then destroys the art, or creates circumstances allowing for the destruction of that art. Such a scene occurs between Ono and his father, between Ono and Moriyama, and between Kuroda and Ono. In each of these scenes, fire is present. Ono’s father burns his son’s paintings, and the police burn Kuroda’s on Ono’s orders. Moriyama does not burn Ono’s paintings, at least not in front of his student, but he insists that Ono light lanterns while making it clear that he plans on destroying the paintings. Fire, then, is a motif signaling to us that an artist’s principles are becoming tyrannical. Notably, Moriyama is obsessed with the accurate portrayal of lantern-light. In his case, then, the benign-seeming portrayal of beauty edges into near-violence when it becomes a form of artistic orthodoxy. Though all three of these scenarios are different, taking place in different times and with slightly varying motives, the presence of fire in all three reminds us to focus on their similarities.
3. SIMILES AND METAPHORS
a. Ruined ceiling (simile)
While introducing the reader to his home at the start of the book, Ono notes that the dust is visible in the sunshine, “as though the ceiling had only that moment crashed down” (p 12). This image, of a home destroyed by war, contrasts jarringly with the description of a tranquil, well-designed home. It is typical of Ishiguro’s understated style that the horrors of war are alluded to with such brevity and matter-of-factness, and it is also typical that this early figurative language remains very much in the realm of the real. Ono draws from his own experiences when he chooses metaphors, and in fact, his choice of metaphor is often a good way to tell what he’s thinking about. Since Ono is hesitant to admit that he is still traumatized by the physical dangers of war, we can instead gather, thanks to this metaphor, that he thinks about the war often and that it does not feel very far in his past.
b. Boisterous banners (metaphor)
In an early description of his beloved pleasure district, Ono describes the “numerous cloth banners pressing at you from all sides, leaning out at you from their shop fronts, each declaring the attractions of their establishment in boisterous lettering” (p 23). This is a particular type of metaphorical language called personification, in which objects are given human attributes. The personification is subtle and understated, but since Ishiguro doesn’t use much figurative language at all, the passage stands out. The use of personification makes the scene appear infused with life, in contrast to its current state, which Ono’s friend Mrs. Kawakami compares to a graveyard (p 28). This language not only makes us understand that the district used to be livelier; it also makes us understand that Ono is lively when he thinks and talks about it, and that this district was once and still is deeply important to him.
c. Tortoise (metaphor)
The “Tortoise” starts off as a nickname for one particular character in An Artist of the Floating World, but after learning from his son-in-law Taro that many workplaces and schools have slow, dedicated workers with the same nickname, Ono begins to apply the metaphor more broadly. In this way the metaphor is somewhat complex. The animals, tortoises, known for their diligent competence, are applied as a metaphor to Ono’s colleague, who is nicknamed the Tortoise because he also bears those characteristics. Once the colleague has that nickname, though, Ono begins to use the man himself as a metaphor for a certain kind of person— a person who works hard, avoids risk, and is more earnest than talented. Therefore, both the animal tortoise and the person known as “The Tortoise” are metaphors. This distinction might seem impossibly fine and unimportant, and in fact it is often difficult to spot. However, once Ono begins to use a person as a metaphor, it becomes clear that he isn’t seeing things clearly. By taking a complicated person with his own desires and reducing him to a metaphorical category (a metaphorical category, in fact, to describe a kind of person Ono feels scorn and contempt for) we know that ability to see other people in all of their complexity has been compromised.
d. Kindling (metaphor)
Fire is often used as a symbol in this book. However, one aspect of fire is used in a particularly memorable bit of figurative language as well. While his father burns his beloved paintings, Ono tells his mother that this won’t destroy his love of art. In fact, he says, “The only thing that father’s succeeded in kindling is my ambition” (p 47). The language and use of wordplay are much more dramatic, even melodramatic, than the kinds of statements Ono makes later in life. In this case, though, the metaphor is deeply satisfying. Ono turns the destructive fire that ruins his paintings into a fuel that prompts him to create more. Furthermore, his ability to use language cleverly and creatively shows us that he remains as much an artist as ever. While his father has the material power to create a literal fire, the young Matsuji has the creative power to metaphorically turn the fire into a force for good.
e. Floating World (metaphor)
For a long time, Ono does not explain to his readers what the “floating world” of the title refers to. In fact, we learn only about three-fourths of the way through this book that it is a nickname for the “nighttime world of pleasure, entertainment, and drink” that Ono inhabited while working under Moriyama. The floating is, of course, metaphorical: this subculture does not literally float. The metaphor evokes a sense of fluidity, temporariness, and surreality. Like an object floating in water, this lost world is elusive and difficult to locate with any definitiveness, both because it is so far in the past by the time Ono narrates this book, and because it belonged to a small group of people separate from mainstream society. This world, Ono explains, seemed to spring into being and then disappear during mundane daylight hours, making the floating metaphor apt. Finally, the phrase “floating” works as a visual metaphor too. This world, and Moriyama’s paintings of it, are characterized by soft lantern-light. The image of water works well to evoke fluid, lively lamplight. The metaphor does double-duty, telling us how this world functioned as well as how it looked.
f. Grotesque miniature cemetery (simile)
While Ono hides out one night in a storeroom at Moriyama’s village, he notices that the lamplight in the room has cast shadows on the various objects within, making it look like a “grotesque miniature cemetery” (p 146). Without even looking at the simile’s specific content, we can see that it’s some of the more colorful, fanciful language in the book. As a whole, Ono reserves his most imaginative phrasing and powerful imagery for discussions of places and times that ignited his artistic and political imagination—that is to say, his time at Moriyama’s villa and in the floating world, and, later, his political awakening with Matsuda. This is a particularly good instance of this tendency. However, the actual comparison being made foreshadows Ono’s upcoming departure from the villa and his schism with Moriyama. He uses a disturbing simile, which implies that his associations with Moriyama’s villa and his artistic techniques are not entirely positive at this point. The image of a graveyard, meanwhile, is a fairly explicit nod towards death—not only the eventual deaths of Kenji and Michiko, but the figurative death of Moriyama and Ono’s partnership.
a. Social Status (dramatic irony)
On several occasions, Ono takes care to emphasize how little he cares about his reputation and social status. “I have never at any point in my life been very aware of my own social standing,” he tells us firmly. The irony lies in the amount of time he spends telling us just how little he cares what others think of him. If he truly didn’t care, we can assume, he wouldn’t think about the subject at all. Moreover, most of this novel revolves around Ono trying to ascertain what his own reputation is. He cares greatly about what others think of him, but is so determined to present himself as someone who doesn’t care about reputation that he cannot objectively interrogate his own self-perception. Ironically, his insistence that he is unaware of his own reputation makes it harder for him to calmly understand his own social standing, which leads him down a path of paranoia and obsession.
b. Burning paintings (situational irony)
A particularly acute case of situational irony arises when the police burn Kuroda’s paintings in front of Ono. The scene recalls the earlier moment when Ono’s father burned his early paintings in the reception room. Ono is self-aware enough not to physically destroy Kuroda’s paintings, and when he reports Kuroda to the police, he believes that his act is helpful and harmless. However, the act still leads to the same result—authority figures destroying art that they find distasteful. Since Ono causes this result without meaning to, the irony here has a tinge of fatefulness or inevitability, as if this pattern of creation and destruction is part of an unfortunate but universal cycle. Ono’s muted reaction to the situation is in itself ironic, although his words in the scene are an instance of dramatic rather than situational irony. For instance, he asks the police whether they are authorized to burn Kuroda’s paintings. In asking this question, he implies a belief that figures like his father and the police have a right to burn art they despise, provided they have enough power and authority. Therefore, though he says this as a challenge to the police, he ends up simply professing agreement with their worldview.
c. Ichiro and Masculinity (dramatic irony)
One way in which Ono often tries to protect his dignity and shore up support is by convincing Ichiro to side with him rather than with Noriko and Setsuko. To this end, he often evokes their shared masculinity, both because it is a useful way to make his daughters seem like outsiders and because it also invokes the memory of Kenji, Ono’s late son. Ironically, Ichiro is not particularly invested in this shared masculinity, except occasionally in the context of lighthearted jokes. Often, he goes along with his grandfather in order to protect Ono’s own feelings, and in doing so he infantilizes Ono even while Ono believes himself to be teaching Ichiro a mature masculinity. For instance, Ono pressures Ichiro to watch a scary movie, seeking a bonding moment with his grandson. Ichiro agrees, but seemingly only for Ono’s benefit, since he brings a jacket purposely in order to cover his eyes. Each time Ono tries to make himself seem authoritative in order to impress Ichiro, Ichiro goes along largely to preserve Ono’s bruised dignity.
d. Mrs. Kawakami’s Nostalgia (dramatic)
It is very possible indeed that Mrs. Kawakami, the proprietor of the last bar left in the old pleasure district, feels a great deal of nostalgia for the district’s glory days. But so does Ono: this is evident from the way he reminisces about the district regularly, and from the suddenly poetic language that arises when he describes his time there. Ironically, though, Ono projects his nostalgia entirely onto Mrs. Kawakami, criticizing her for feeling nostalgic while claiming that he is completely at peace with the loss of the pleasure district. Though his lack of self-awareness is somewhat ironic, it may ultimately be a helpful coping mechanism for him. By projecting his own feelings onto a friend, he is able to critique, sympathize with, and evaluate those feelings at a distance, which helps him understand why he feels the way he does.
e.”Complacency” (visual irony)
“Complacency” is the first explicitly political work that Ono creates, and it is packed with sarcasm. Though much of the irony in this novel is dramatic irony stemming from Ono’s own lack of self-awareness, in the case of the painting, Ono is an artist in complete control of his own use of irony. He portrays extremely poor boys in a way that evokes samurai. With this contrasting image, Ono challenges the viewer’s expectation and cuttingly critiques the way in which poverty has robbed both individual Japanese people and the country in general of their dignity.
a. The Pleasure District
While most of this book’s imagery is minimal, visually-focused, and straightforward, Ono’s descriptions of his favorite old neighborhood are vivid, packed with information from all five senses, and full of figurative language. In an early description of the old pleasure district, Ono describes the way that banners announcing various establishments leaned out into the street, using personification to bring the image to life. Later, he provides an aural and olfactory description, which stands out beside his other visual descriptions and makes us understand how vivid his memories remain. These images include “…the laughter of people congregated outside the Migi-Hidari, the smell of deep-fried food… the clicking of numerous wooden sandals on the concrete.” Not only do these images bring the scene to life, they also show us particularly what Ono misses the most about it. For instance, the evocative image of wooden sandals brings to mind a distinctly Japanese type of clothing, tying the scene to a broader nostalgia and sense of lost nationalism.
b. Moriyama’s Villa
Images of candlelight are prevalent in Seijo Moriyama’s paintings, but, because Moriyama paints the lantern-lit floating world and seeks inspiration there, imagery of lamplight pervades descriptions of the city’s lost nightlife as well. In fact, an entire period of Ono’s life is essentially marked by its lighting, which is described in such a way that these scenes have an ethereal, distinct mood. Even in non-candlelit moments, Moriyama’s villa has a similar mood—it feels separate from the rest of the world, connected to a timeless, decaying beauty. Ono gives us a rare image of scent to get this mood across, saying “Those roofs were forever developing new leaks and after a night of rain, the smell of damp wood and mouldering leaves would pervade every room.” Imagery of leaking walls, rotting wood, and flickering lamplight all contribute to the same impression, since all of them remind us of temporariness and of how fleeting beauty can be.
c. War and Fire
While conveying the scene where the police burn Kuroda’s paintings, Ono describes the sound of Kuroda’s mother crying and the harsh scent of smoke. He blends different senses together to create a feeling of sensory overload. As a general rule, Ishiguro reserves these kinds of vivid sensory images for moments that are particularly important to Ono, either because they are full of beauty or because they are traumatic. This is clearly the latter, and the combined images of the sound of crying and the scent of smoke make it a vivid moment for the reader as well. Since Ono rarely talks about the war directly, as if it is still too raw to mention, this scene also serves as a kind of substitute for a battle scene or a bombing scene. The images within it bring to mind death, violence, and destruction, allowing us to picture the war even without it being directly described
While observing a poor neighborhood with Matsuda, Ono is first struck by its scent, which Matsuda attributes to sewage. To make this image more vivid, Ishiguro cleverly employs a visual image of swarming flies, which show us that the day is hot and emphasize the overwhelming nature of the neighborhood’s smell. He also includes an aural image of the flies’ buzzing, so that each sense emphasizes and builds on the others. By making the reader feel overwhelmed by images, Ishiguro conveys the overwhelming feeling of this crowded, uncomfortable area. Every person who reads this scene is likely to feel struck by at least one image and to remember it. Therefore, when Ono explains that the image of boys torturing an animal has remained in his mind, we understand and sympathize.