Tragedy and Memory in Personal Narrative: Masuji Ono

Masuji suffered individual trauma; Japan suffered collective trauma. We see their overlap in Masuji's narrative in Artist of the Floating World.

Artist of the Floating World is Masuji Ono’s personal musing and identity raveled into a flexible, meditative story; he writes and wanders through his career as an artist, his love for and loss of family, and aftershocks of war in ‘floating’ narrative. As an old man, Ono is a retired artist with a deteriorating memory, but his lack of chronology goes deeper than his age; his entire personhood has been cracked by the effects of war. The first characteristic of Masuji’s memory is that it is decidedly optimistic; because the reality of the war and its consequences are so painful, he has coped (perhaps subconsciously) by forgetting or ignoring some of the gritty details of his life. As he talks about his wife Michiko, a war victim, he says “I remember her back in the old days then,” illustrating that Masuji’s memory is understandably focused on ‘the good old days’ (91). Second, Masuji’s memory is jumpy and unfocused; as readers follow his thoughts, they are extremely disorganized. In a single sentence, he jumps “almost thirty years” or will note that it was “not my intention to dwell” on a given interaction or character after unexpectedly spending pages on a disconnected incident(89, 134). After years of trauma expedited by aging, Masuji’s memory is disorganized and rose-colored to help him cope with debilitating damage.

As a trauma survivor, I can identify with Masuji’s struggle with memory and its loopholes. I find it particularly interesting that Masuji never names post-traumatic stress disorder, largely because the trauma he has sustained was sustained by his entire nation. As an individual, I felt at liberty to cope with my traumatic experience with my own methods, but if entire millions of people had sustained the same trauma, I would feel much more pressure to cope in specified, ‘socially acceptable’ ways. Masuji’s method of remembering and coping with his trauma is largely, and paradoxically, forgetting. He is unable to use art as a coping mechanism because it is deeply embedded in his trauma, and instead forgets large pieces of it. In contrast, I’ve had the luxury of various media at my fingertips to help me process and remember my own trauma in constructive ways. Because the entire nation of Japan suffered trauma alongside Masuji, he is not afforded the luxuries of concentrated or individual time to recover. He integrates trauma into his personal narrative in ways that might confuse readers, but nevertheless express the gravity of his experience.

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