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by Bamber Gascoigne

Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954)


British (Japanese-born) author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. Kazuo Ishiguro grew up in a bilingual household, but English became his stronger language and he speaks only rudimentary Japanese. In his novels, written with deliberately restrained style, he has explored themes of intergenerational family relations, unreliability of memory, and feelings of guilt. Ishiguro's most popular novel, the international bestseller The Remains of the Day (1989), was adapted for the screen by the director James Ivory, the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and the producer Ismail Merchant.

"It is, of course, the responsibility of every butler to devote his utmost care in the devising of a staff plan. Who knows how many quarrels, false accusations, unnecessary dismissals, how many promising careers cut short can be attributed to a butler's slovenliness at the stage drawing up the staff pla? Indeed, I can say I am in agreement with those who say that the ability to draw up a good staff plan is the cornerstone of any decent butler's skills" (from The Remains of the Day, 1989)

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, the son of Shizuo, an oceanographer, and Shizuko (née Michida) Ishiguro. At the age of five, he was brought to England when his father was invited to participate in the exploration and development of the oil deposits in the North Sea. The family settled in Guilford, Surrey. Originally Ishiguro's parents intended to return to Japan, but by 1970 the temporary stay had became a permanent one. They still kept their beautiful, traditional Japanese house in Nagasaki (three storey with a western room at the top, sliding doors, a big garden) but it went gradually to ruin because no one lived in it anymore. It was not until 1989, when Ishiguro visited Japan, where he was considered a foreign writer.

At home Ishiguro's parents spoke only Japanese and they kept their children supplied with Japanese book. Ishiguro himself became very rapidly fluent in English. Around the age 9 or 10, he discovered literature through reading Sherlock Holmes stories. During his teens Ishiguro learned to play the piano and guitar, but he eventually gave up his aspirations to be a musician. He was more interested in film and songwriting than reading, wanting to be like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. "I've always seen my stories as enlarged songs," Ishiguro has said in an interview. When he began writing seriously, he did not consider it necessary to introduce autobiographical elements into his fiction.

Ishiguro was educated at Stoughton Primary School (1960-1966) and Woking County Grammar School for Boys, Surrey (1966-1973). A Japanese schoolboy, he received inevitably much attention by his classmates and teachers, but he did not suffer from racial discrimininaton, although he was was called "Ish da wog" for a while. Following his secondary school graduation, Ishiguro took a gap year. He was employed as a member of  the Queen Mother's Royal grousebeating party at Balmoral Castle and hitchhiked around the United States and Canada. In 1978, Ishiguro earned his B.A. with honors in philosophy and literature at the University of Kent. He then moved to London, where he worked for the Cyrenians, a welfare organization that helps the homeless and unemployed. Later he studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia graduate school. Among his teachers were Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. Through his social work, Ishiburo met his future wife, Lorna Anne MacDougall; they married in 1986.

Ishiguro's early short stories were published by Faber & Faber in the anthology Introduction 7: Stories by New Writers (1981). It contained three stories, 'A Strange and Sometimes Sadness', 'Waiting for J', and 'Getting Poisoned'. As a novelist he debuted with A Pale View of Hills (1982), which received the Winifred Holtby Award from the Royal Society of Literature. "Beautifully written, Ishiguro's book presents his themes clearly but without sacrificing any of the integrity of the story," said Nigel Hunt in his review (The Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro by Matthew Beedham, 2009, p. 26). Ishiguro gave up his day job in 1982 and the next year he took British citizenship. (He had been chosen in 1983 as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelist, but actually he was still Japanese.)

On the surface, Ishiguro's prose is precise yet leisurely, but he has confessed to have spent "anguished for weeks" over just one line in The Remains of the Day. He has considered that his style is "the antithesis of Rushdie's or Mo's" because "[t]their writings tends to have these quirks where it explodes in all kinds of directions." (The Margin Without Centre: Kazuo Ishiguro by Chu-chueh Cheng, 2010, p. 12)

Partly because of the use of unreliable narrators and projections of dreams, Ishiguro has been often labelled as a postmodernist writer. He has also spoken of his effort to write books that appear to be translateed from another language. Ishiguro's first two books, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), about a retired artist feeling guilty about his past, were set  mostly in Japan, a country of which he had only fleeting memories. After this 'Japanese period,' Ishiguro published a set of novels that make little or no reference to his non-British ancestry. Ishiguro has once said that "it seems my Japanese novels are so exotic and remote that I could have written bizarre Márquezian or Kafkaesque stuff and people would still have taken it as straight realism. I've always stuggled with this literal-minded tendency in British audiences." (Kazuo Ishiguro by Barry Lewis, 2000, p. 9) Critics have compared his novels with those of Masuji Ibuse, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki, but the author himself has expressed his admiration of American writers, such as Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Carver, and once mentioned Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens his major influences.

Although Ishiguro explores the mental states of his characters with psychological insight and intimacy, their lives tend to have little in common with the experiences of author himself. The protagonist of A Pale View of Hills is an elderly Japanese woman living in England. She is a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack, but describes the life in the city during the 1950s without mentioning the bomb. (Ishiguro himself learned at primary school that Nagasaki had been atom-bombed. His grandfather, who had not been near the blast, died shortly afterwards, most likely due to the radiation.) In The Remains of the Day the narrator is James Stevens, an aging, self-deceiving butler, who uses very formal language. He has served for decades at Darlington Hall, owned by the Darlingtons. Ishiguro has said in a interview by Graham Swift, that the butler, a mythical figure in British culture, is a good metaphor for the relationship of ordinary people to power. (Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro, edited by Brian W. Shaffer and Cynthia F. Wong, 2008, pp. 37-38) Stevens is obsessed with the concept of dignity, which he equates with having no emotions. Under his stoic professionalism, Stevens hides his true feelings, even from himself.

Ishiguro did not see James Ivory's adaptation of The Remains of the Day until the film was finished. It earned eight Oscar nominations. The Nobel laureate Harold Pinter had an early involvement with the production. He had read Ishiguro's manuscript before the novel was published, and wrote a script for Columbia Pictures; it was never used and he is not listed in the credits. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala screenplay took some crucial liberties with the novel – first of all, instead of being narrated by Stevens from his limited perspective, a central element of the story, the events are seen from a more impartial point of view. Moreover, the theme of dignity is introduced only briefly. Christopher Reeve, who was generallly associated with Superman, was cast in the role of the American congressman Jack Lewis. Some audiences did not take him seriously. In the novel, Dalington Hall is bought by an American named Faraday. Jhabvala's screenplay makes Lewis the house's new owner. Anthony Hopkins, who played Stevens, won the Best Actor award from the British Academy of Film. Later he has been quoted as saying "Stevens is a dead man, a walking dead. Roles like that are a trap. . . . I can't play dead men anymore." (James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies by Robert Emmet Long, 2005, p. 237)

Ishiguro has said that the Japanese directors Akiro Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu have influenced him enormously as a writer. His engagement with the screen began in the 1980s, when he was commissioned to write two teleplays, Profile of Arthur J. Mason and The Gourmet. Directed by Michael Whyte, they were broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 in 1984 and 1986, respectively. Ishiguro also served as a member of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival Jury chaired by his childhood hero Clint Eastwood. That year, the Palme d'Or went to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. With James Ivory, Ishiguro wrote the screenpaly for The White Countess (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave. His original script for Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World (2004) was rewritten by Maddin and George Toles.

Many reviewers were puzzled as well as impressed by the hallucinatory narrative of The Unconsoled (1995), which marked a creative watershed and demostrated Ishiguro's ability to stretch the conventions of prose fiction. One of the most disappointed critics, the novelist James Wood stated that "Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel has the virtue of being unlike anything else; it invents its own category of badness".

Besides the Nobel Prize, Ishiguro's awards include Whitebread Book of the Year Award for An Artist of the Floating World (1986), the 1989 Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day, and the Chevalier del'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1998) by the French government. In 1995, he received an Order of the British Empire for service to literature. Along with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie, Ishiguro is one of those rare, widely translated writers whose works have received both popular and critical acclaim.  

Ishiguro lives in north London with his wife. His latest novel, The Buried Giant (2015), set in Arthurian Britain, is an  excursion in the genre of fantasy. "Fantasy and historical fiction and myth here run together with the Matter of Britain, in a novel that’s easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love." (Neil Gaiman in The New York Times, Feb. 25, 2015) Ishiguro's day job is still novelist but the next project is different ‒ writing comics inspired by Japanese manga from his chlidhood. In spite of his international fame, Ishiguro is known for his great sense of modesty. When he was told he had won a Nobel Prize, he said, "I thought is was a hoax in this time of fake news, I didn't believe it for a long time."

Klara and the Sun (2021) is Ishiguro's first novel since receiving the Nobel literature prize. The narrator, Klara, is an Artificial Friend, solar-powered android known for emptathy. She is bought as a companion to Josie, a teenage girl who suffers, possibly, from the side effets of genetic editing. Her illnes is the center of the story. "Klara and the Sun is a sweet and poignant story, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with that. It asks important questions about the human heart, "the hardest part of Josie" for Klara to ultimately learn." (Paul Perry, in The, March 7, 2021)

For further reading: 'Ishiguro, Kazuo,' in World Authors 1985-1990, edited by Vineta Colby (1995); Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro by Brian W. Shaffer (1998); Narratives of Memory and Identity: The Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro by Mike Petry (1999);  Kazuo Ishiguro by Barry Lewis (2000); Conversations with Kazuo Ishiguro, edited by Brian W. Shaffer and Cynthia F. Wong (2008); The Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro by Matthew Beedham (2009); The Margin Without Centre: Kazuo Ishiguro by Chu-chueh Cheng (2010); Kazuo Ishiguro and Max Frisch: Bending Facts in Unreliable and Unnatural Narration by Zuzana Fonioková (2015); Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, edited by Cynthia F. Wong and Hülya Yildiz (2015) 

Selected works:

  • A Pale View of Hills, 1982
    - Silmissä siintävät vuoret (suom. Marjatta Kapari, 1983)
  • Profile of Arthur J. Mason, 1984 (TV script, dir. by Michael Whyte)
  • An Artist of the Floating World, 1986
    - Menneen maailman maalari (suom. Helene Bützow, 1988)
  • The Gourmet, 1987 (TV script, dir. by Michael Whyte)
  • The Remains of the Day, 1989
    - Pitkän päivän ilta (suom. Helene Bützow, 1990)
    - film: The Remains of the Day (1993), screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, directed by James Ivory, starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox
  • The Unconsoled, 1995
    - Surullinen pianisti (suom. Helene Bützow, 2018)
  • When We Were Orphans, 2000
    - Me orvot (suom. Helene Bützow, 2002)
  • Never Let Me Go, 2005
    - Ole luonani aina (suom. Helene Bützow, 2005)
    - film: Never Let Me Go (2010), screenplay by Alex Garland, directed by Mark Romanek, starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield
  • Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, 2009
    - Yösoittoja (suom. Helene Bützow, 2011)
  • The White Countess, 2005 (screenplay)
    - film directed by James Ivory, starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Hiroyuki Sanada, Lynn Redgrave
  • The Buried Giant, 2015
    - Haudattu jättiläinen (suom. Helene Bützow, 2016)
  • Klara and the Sun, 2021
    - Klara ja aurinko (suom. Helene Bützow, 2021)

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