Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World

This is a beautiful novel about post-war Japan. It is told from the point of view of an elderly man who was a propaganda artist during Japan’s militarization in the 1930s and is popular in high school and university courses because our protagonist is your classic unreliable narrator – and probably for other reasons. According to the protagonist, he was a very influential person in helping to stoke and then direct Japanese nationalism and ideas of marshal supremacy and imperial ambitions. After the end of the war, many of the elder generation who helped steer Japan into disaster commit suicide or are shunned from society as a younger, disgruntled, battle-scarred and thoroughly US-dominated younger generation come to resent those who caused the calamity of World War II.

In addition to this grand sweep of history, the story is very firmly rooted in a smaller family drama: the protagonist has three children. A son, who died in the war. An elder daughter, married with a young son. And a younger daughter, of marriageable age. The main family drama is whether the younger daughter will be able to marry because lots of eligible men won’t want to be associated with her disgraced father. Again, because the father is an unreliable narrator much of this has to be teased out and one wonders how much is true or just in his head. I mean, he painted nationalist paintings while hanging out in old-Tokyo’s pleasure districts in the 1930s. Did he really cause the war?

The novel reaches its eventual point of catharsis when the father admits his faults and takes some amount of responsibility. The younger daughter gets married. The old parts of Tokyo that weren’t bombed are cleared out for development. Life goes on. The sweep of history continues, laced with these tiny family moments that are insignificant to history but mean the world to a single person. So, the book tells an interesting story that brings up some themes. I’m sure you can find many thematic discussions on Sparknotes.

For me, I just thought it was a really excellently textured book, with well-developed and believable characters who, in the context of their society and times, behaved in under-stated but believable ways. Everything sort of comes together on that front; it’s a simple story about a family caught up in a difficult post-war time where a lot of things need to be sorted through and figured out. I thought the writing was impeccable; simple and to the point, and often taking the time to depict some tiny little aspect of life (like the grandpa trying to take his grandson to a monster film) in a believable and textured fashion. Little details like that really brought the book to life for me.