The narrator of this novel set in Japan after the WW II, Masuji Ono, a celebrated painter, spends his days tending his garden and house, attending his two daughters and a grandson. Wallowing in nostalgia for the good old days before Americans have started to exert its influence in Japan, Ono finds the newfound democracy in Japan hard to grasp. His grandson watches cowboy films, which he would not have been allowed to do only few years ago. The new, embittered generation of young people in Japan after the WW II is trying to “make a better go of things”. It is not surprising that Ono finds it difficult to cope with the new changes that have occurred because he is very different from this new generation. Namely, he was the one who supported his nation throughout the war through his nationalistic artworks.
Throughout the period of three years, we follow the main character from his childhood years, from his decision to take up painting as a profession to breaking free from traditional Japanese art and producing propaganda work. Like Stevens from The Remains of the Day, Ono is not a reliable narrator.
We are a given only pieces of a puzzle and only if we read between the lines are we on the right path to understand Ono as a man who “wanted so badly to make a grand contribution”, a man who had ambition to produce “work that will be a significant contribution to the people of (our) nation”.
It is interesting how Ishiguro slowly builds his main character’s path that leads to Ono’s guilt and regret about the mistakes he had made in the past. At the beginning, we are introduced to the respectable and worthy painter who was given the chance to buy a house from “the city’s most respected and influential man.” Since the worthiness was the most important condition in order to be able to buy the house, we are given the clue of how upright Ono is. In addition, we are given information that Ono helped many people in the city. Being very humble, he was never aware of his social standing and the amount of influence he had on people.
When we dig deeper, we are surprised that he talks about his own achievements all the time, his being as modest as he claims to be. His daughter’s statement “There’s no need to be afraid of him anymore. He’s much more gentle and domesticated,” reveals the other side of Ono.
We are not sure what kind of a man he used to be due to the lack of information he gives us. Until his other daughter subtly advises him to “take precautionary steps” to prevent any misunderstandings, Ono does not start to dwell on his past self. We have previously found out that Ono is involved in marriage negotiations concerning his younger daughter.
Through his digressions, which he accidentally mentions and which he associates with present events, we begin to get a larger picture of his past activities. The fact that digressions outnumber the events happening during the very process of narration shows us that past has significant impact on his present activities, even though Ono does not want to admit it.
Some crucial events from his past are mentioned accidentally and he pays only little importance to them. He does not even understand some of them and finds them disturbing. Ono cannot understand why people who felt responsible for certain activities during the war committed suicide. He cannot understand that it was some kind of apology. He claims there is no shame supporting your country. He cannot understand because he was one of them.
Ono does not confess he had made mistakes and this is why he thinks all these people died bravely fighting for some higher cause. The main event, which tells of the period when he was police informer and official advisor to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities, compromises very small part of the entire book. After retelling this event, Ono says, “But this is all of limited relevance here”, because this has been one of his little digressions and he must continue where he has stopped. This shows us how he dissociates himself from his past activities refusing to recognize direct consequences of his past actions. Finally, it shows how Ishiguro masterfully analyzes Ono’s subconscious embarrassment of being affiliated with people who contributed to the war.
His actions concerning his indirect involvement in the war stem from his childhood. When Ono’s father found out about Ono’s desire to take painting as a profession, he burnt all his son’s paintings. Ono’s father held belief that artists live in “squalor and poverty” and that they are “weak-willed and depraved”. This is how his father kindled his ambition to become an artist and to be able to“rise above the mediocre” in order to “produce paintings of genuine importance”.
Ono struggles to come to grips with the obvious transition, which was made in his society. He still lives in the past, trying to rebuild it. That’s the reason why he constantly describes his district before the war. He describes the famous hotels, parks…
Ono struggles to preserve the image of himself as a respectable artist and he cannot face the fact that the father of his future son-in-law, Dr Saito, haven’t heard about him before the marriage negotiations began. He received this information from his daughter and it struck him as very strange because Ono has known Dr Saito for 16 years now. They have been neighbors all this time. Ono becomes very keen to prove his daughter wrong. When the marriage negotiations were in crisis, Ono for the first time admits he has made mistakes in past. He becomes so obsessed with the fact that Dr Saito will pull out from the negotiations that he proclaims he has been wrong and that he has made some terrible mistakes.
The time of being too proud to admit mistakes is over for Ono. “I am not one of those who are afraid to admit to the shortcomings of past achievements”, Ono says. What Ono finds out at the end is that his “shortcomings of his past achievements” are not important anymore because the new generation does not know who he was and does not care to know. Finally, they turned over a new page in their lives. “No one cares now what the likes of you and me once did”,Ono’s friend tells him.
The novel ends with Ono sitting on a bench and concluding that he was only an ordinary man acting on what he believed. Even though he “took some bold steps” in his life he claims these steps are“surely preferable to never putting one’s convictions to the test, for lack of will and courage”. He seems that he finally understands what it means to be brave to admit one’s mistakes and to turn a new leaf in one’s life. He decides to enjoy his life and it seems that a brighter future for Ono is on the horizon.
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