An Artist of the Floating World is the story of Masuji Ono, an elderly painter reflecting on his life as a young man in Japan's decadent artistic world and on his decline since World War II. Ono's narration is unreliable and his self-image largely built up by denial, so his version of events is often shaky at best. Ono's revelation that he was a police informant on his fellow artists during World War II seals his faltering reputation.
Among the themes explored in this novel are arranged marriage, the changing roles of women, and the declining status of "elders" in Japanese society since 1945. The novel is narrated by a man who, besides being an artist, is also a father, a grandfather, and a widower. It tells, with a strong voice, much about the "pleasure era" of Japanese society, elaborating on the life of a successful and devoted young artist in a decadent era. We learn how attitudes toward Japanese art and society became less tolerant of such extravagance, and what it was like to live with the guilt of such pleasure. The pace is slow and lingers over details, reflecting the central theme.