Kazuo Ishiguro writes in the aftermath of the noir event. The tragedy has passed, the noir moment of betrayal now an unreliable memory.
Ishiguro is my favourite living author. I re-read one of his novels recently: An Artist of the Floating World and a second, When We Were Orphans, for the first time (the latter being the only I hadn’t read). I went about it with the hope that I could shoehorn him into my PhD exegesis, which looks at noir, cyberpunk, and Asian modernity. I’d seen some reviews calling When We Were Orphans roman noir (noir fiction) and had the academic version of jizzpants at the thought of the big K finding his way into my studies.
Ishiguro is known for his exquisitely spare, subtle, yet heart-breaking novels; not for pulp, or violence, or snappy dialogue over the corpse of a dead dame. True. But he’s far more noir than you’d expect: thematically many of his concerns overlap with the concerns of the noir discourse (‘discourse’! – I must be back at fucken uni). So the roman noir call seemed not completely unreasonable.
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An Artist of the Floating World and When We Were Orphans are concerned with the issue of complicity, a theme Ishiguro has explored throughout his literary career. In the former novel it is complicity with the imperialist regime of pre WWII Japan, in the latter it is the complicity with England’s humiliation of China via the enforced sale of opium.
Complicity, in my view, is also consistent theme of noir (in discussing noir I include its descendants, neo-noir and cyberpunk). The private detective is complicit insofar as he/she is often employed by the corrupt elite – such as The Continental Op in Red Harvest, who works a case for the crooked industrialist Elihu Willsson; Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, essentially a hired killer for the police, who in turn are in the service of the powerful mega-corporation, Tyrell; or Jake Gittes in Chinatown, hired by another venal capitalist, Noah Cross.
However, in all three, the noir protagonist is acutely aware of the true nature of their employers, and eventually work directly against their interests in order to uphold a principle or code (even if that ‘code’ may be opaque to us as readers or viewers). So the Continental Op turns the four criminal factions in the town against each other – including the faction of his employer – resulting in a hallucinogenic bloodbath. In Blade Runner, Deckard saves the last replicant (Rachel) and escapes with her (albeit after murdering the other androids). In Chinatown, Jake Gittes tries – though tragically fails – to save the abused daughter of Noah Cross.
The complicity of the Ishiguro protagonist is a different beast – it is a complicity so complete it is subconscious. It never ends. The protagonist never makes a stand against a corrupt system, they only look back, decades later, with a dawning and distant realisation of their part in a greater evil.
The titular artist of An Artist of the Floating World, Masuji Ono, serves the imperial Japanese regime leading up to and during World War II, using his creative skills to produce propaganda. He informs on his most talented pupil for their opposition to the war, resulting in his pupil’s torture and imprisonment, and the destruction of their art. Decades later, Masuji still has difficulty coming to terms with his collaboration with the regime, unable to grasp the damage done by the Japanese Empire, or the enormity of the betrayal of his former student.
Christopher Banks, the private detective in When We Were Orphans, likewise does not understand the broader system or his place within it. He is ignorant of the effects of colonialism, in particular the imposition of the opium trade on China by Britain. It is not until he returns to Saigon from England to find his parents – who went missing when he was a young child – that he discovers his whole adult life was a lie.
His mother – once a courageous anti-opium campaigner – was enslaved by a Chinese warlord, aided and abetted by Christopher’s uncle, a man he once loved and respected as a child. She was forced to be a concubine by the warlord; he would often whip her during dinners with guests present. She consented to all this because she was promised that a stipend would be paid to her son, back in England. Furthermore, the stipend Christopher received from the warlord came out of the profits of on-selling opium.
His uncle, confronted by Christopher, admits, “she wanted you to live in your enchanted world forever”. Thus, although Banks was a private investigator of some renown, he was only able to pursue it as a dilettante. As a man of leisure who received sufficient allowance through the sale of opium.
It is a devastating, shocking conclusion to the story. His whole life a lie, funded by a drug that was the instrument of English oppression in China, and by his mother’s terrible, unspeakable sacrifice. When We Were Orphans is black and bleak, and yet, the noir moment has past, decades hence. The violence against his mother off-screen, hearsay; the detective’s realisation of his complicity a lifetime too late.
A second theme of Ishiguro – and again, one that is a regular concern of noir – is memory: its unreliability, and the way a compromised narrator will lie to themselves (and the reader) in order to justify their moral failings and unforgivable hypocrisies.
Memento, Dark City, and Blade Runner, for example, all deal with the question of memory and identity. The first two have amnesiac protagonist, the third an android whose memories are fake – put in his head by a corporation to make him think he is human (I’m assuming you know that Rick Deckard is a replicant, which should be obvious from watching the Final Cut of the film, and even more obvious when Ridley Scott says: yes, Deckard is a replicant).
Ishiguro’s protagonists are always remembering, and mis-remembering, dark passages of the past; always in their twilight years, reflecting on what remains of the day. The noir has past. There is no tone of fatalism in Ishiguro as such, but rather one of bitter nostalgia. While his subjects certainly are those of noir – the individual caught up the destructive whirlwind of modernity and change – they never police the grey areas between the old world and the new, and indeed, fail to realise these two worlds are colliding.
Even the noir amnesiac turns out to be more knowing and culpable than at first glance. Leonard Shelby in Memento, for example, deliberately and maliciously sets up a series of events that leads to the death of another character, Teddy, by making his future self (who will not remember the lie), kill Teddy, believing him responsible for his wife’s death (he wasn’t).
Where the protagonists in Blade Runner and Memento have agency, Ishiguro’s have none. They have relinquished their choices to an external force – in this case Imperialist Japan or the Opium Trade.
When We Were Orphans was identified as noir presumably because it has a detective and a crime (his missing parents). The more reductive critic, believing this, is then obliged to ignore Yojimbo, Mulholland Drive, Looper, The Postman Always Rings Twice, 2046, The Sorrow of War, Taxi Driver, and The Rover, to name but a few.
The presence of a detective aside, there is nothing particularly different in theme, tone, or mood from this novel to Artist of the Floating World, or Remains of the Day, or A Pale View of Hills, or Never Let me Go. Indeed, if When Were Orphans were considered noir, Ishiguro’s entire oeuvre would need to be classified as such.
Unlike much of noir, Ishiguro’s writing could never be called stylised – neither his dialogue or descriptions. For want of a better word, it is literary. He has the remarkable ability to pack subtext after subtext into each scene or even line of dialogue. The narrators are never hard bitten and cynical, wise in the ways of the world. As I have argued, they are delusional, naïve, and often completely un-self-aware, at least until it is far too late (decades too late in When We Were Orphans and An Artist of the Floating World).
Kazuo Ishiguro is post-noir, because events take place after the noir moment has long gone. Whereas the noir present is filled with tension, the immanent violence of a corrupt order, of tough lives lived on mean streets, Ishiguro’s novels exist in an unreliable recollection of a distant past.
Ishiguro’s novels exist in the nostalgia, pathos, even banality of the aftermath.