Kazuo Ishiguro: an English writer with Japanese heritage

By Helena Chung

Kazuo Ishiguro’s win of the Nobel Prize in Literature this year seemed to be a surprising, yet somehow predictable outcome. After last year’s controversy, it is not exactly a secret that the Swedish Academy would rather not have faced another round of criticism from the conservatives with strict principles on the definition of serious literature. Ishiguro fits the bill on this definition completely, having won the prestigious Man Booker Award for his masterpiece Remains of the Day, as well as currently enjoying a certain level of popularity with several of his books adapted for the big screen.

Despite having a Japanese name and an Asian face, Ishiguro has long been identified as an English writer from the West (his name is presented in ‘katakana’ by Japanese media, which is reserved for foreign expressions) His works, aside from his first two novels, are – on the surface – not related to Japanese culture at all and his masterful skill in understanding and exploring the emotions of human beings across time and space has been praised numerously.

Nevertheless, it is impossible not to take his Japanese heritage into consideration when one studies his works, as the author himself has revealed in past interviews that his Japanese upbringing by his parents has influenced his worldview to a great extent. Thus, reading his two early, lesser-known novels would be a good way to understand Ishiguro’s recurring themes of unreliable memory and use of first-person narrative, which have become his trademark.

Ishiguro’s debut novel A Pale View of Hills focuses on the memories of Etsuko, a Japanese immigrant in England who is dealing with the suicide of her eldest daughter Keiko, leading to a journey into her past in the heavily bombed Nagasaki. During Etsuko’s first marriage, she forms an unusual friendship with Sachiko, a rebellious and irresponsible mother obsessed with her American lover, whose turbulent relationship with her daughter Mariko parallels Etsuko and Keiko’s in a disturbing way. Some readers have picked on this resemblance to David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive. Meanwhile, in post-war Japan, the rift between the two generations of Japanese men, represented by Etsuko’s husband and father-in-law, becomes increasingly divided as the nation ponders Japan’s role in the war. Etsuko’s first-person narrative, which quietly observes everything in a detached manner, is reminiscent of the old Japanese films directed by Ozu and Naruse. It is clear that cinema has a huge influence on Ishiguro, who has declared himself a devoted cinephile. Her repression of feelings, and Etsuko’s refusal to admit her responsibility for Keiko’s suicide, reflects how the human mind reconstructs memory and seeks to escape through deceptions and change of identity.

A Pale View of Hills is followed by An Artist of the Floating World, another reflection on life in post-war Japan, though the narrator becomes a pro-militarism painter who struggles in both externally and internally trying to maintain his former glory and own belief, as his faith in his own deeds crumbles while Japan throws herself into the embrace of American modernization, eager to bury her dark past. Similar to his first novel, Ishiguro’s use of first-person narrative reflects the highly unreliable nature of memory, while the evasive discourse between the narrator and his daughters on marriage arrangements can be interpreted both as a depiction of the strict hierarchical system in Japanese culture, as well as alluding to Japan’s denial of her guilt as an aggressor in WWII.

In these two early works, Kazuo Ishiguro has already demonstrated his ability to dive deep into the subconscious of characters and to translate the ambiguity of memory into simple yet beautiful language. As the Nobel Committee remarked, “in novels of great emotional force, [Ishiguro] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

Image: Tanisha Pina via Flickr

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