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Kazuo Ishiguro: My Own Private Japan

The novelist talks about his favorite samurai movies, the violence of imperialism, and his struggle to remember Japan

By Ken Chen

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant—his first in ten years—initially seems to be his most atypical: it’s a fantasy novel set in a decadent post-Arthurian Britain, teeming with knights, magical spells, and ogres. And yet the giant in the title refers not to a gargantuan creature of myth, but to barely repressed ethnic tensions. As in past Ishiguro novels, the characters seek to heal past traumas while still entangled by their past links to wartime ideologies. That the novel maintains the classic Ishiguro themes, while supplanting them in a surprising and aesthetically risky milieu, speaks to one of Ishiguro’s central talents as a novelist: his world-building. Each Ishiguro title has jumped settings: Japanese-British contemporary England (A Pale View of the Hills), post-WWII post-imperial Japan (An Artist of the Floating World), the upstairs-downstairs English manor (Remains of the Day), a stream of consciousness mind of a pianist in Central European (The Unconsoled), colonial Shanghai (When We Were Orphans), and a dystopian world where clones are culled for organs (Never Let Me Go, which Ishiguro has called his happiest book).

Ishiguro immigrated to England as a young boy from Nagasaki, a town whose world-historical significance as nuclear bombing site he did not realize until he read about it in a British textbook. Landing in England, his parents were startled by the bloody goriness of the Christ statues they encountered and Ishiguro assimilated by watching cowboy movies. In one interview I read, he recounts greeting someone at school with the salutation, “Howdy!” As a young artist, his first medium was not literature but music. He has said his experience writing personal yet oblique pop songs a la Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen meant that when he started writing, he had gotten the autobiographical urge out of his system.

I met Ishiguro on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at his midtown hotel, where he also read a few short passages from the novel, as you can see from the video below. We started the conversation by talking about his memories of Japan, jumped to imperialism and Ferguson, and ended by discussing his favorite samurai and cowboy movies; it was, you might say, a very AAWW conversation.

BONUS: Watch Ishiguro reading from portions of The Buried Giant.

Ken Chen: Many of your books deal with the theme of memory. Do you think about memory differently than when you wrote your first book?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I think I do. When I first went into writing, I was actually interested in my own memories. The act of writing and remembering were intimately entwined. In fact, I would say I probably started to write novels because I wanted to preserve my memories of Japan—at least what I thought were my memories.

I read that when you wrote about Japan, you thought that you were inventing the place, retrospectively.

I was in my mid-twenties when I was writing my first novel, and I was looking back twenty years to my very early childhood in Japan. They’re probably very distorted, very colored memories. But nevertheless, let’s call them “memories” in big quotes. That’s what I had when I thought about Japan. So over that period from when I was five, when I arrived in Britain, to the time I started to write fiction, I think I had been building in my head a kind of fictional Japan. It was memories overlayed with whatever I imagined Japan to be like from books and manga stories, and also Japanese movies, because I went through a phase when I was really interested in Japanese movies that were set either during or just before when I left.

Movies of your parents’ generation?

Those images would spark all sorts of memories for me. Another thing that occurred to me in my early- to mid-twenties was that this Japan didn’t exist anywhere, apart from in my head. It might have a vague correspondence to the place I’d arrived at off the plane, but I realized that it was my own private Japan. I realized that it was fading. It was disappearing with every year that I got older.

When you watch Mikio Naruse movies, or a lot of those other movies at the time, you can really see that Japan was changing because of the war.

It was literally changing, or it had already changed. By the 1980s, it was very difficult to find a world like, say, the Naruse movies or the Yasujiro Ozu movies. But it was also fading in my mind because I was remembering these things less and less as I got older. One solution that occurred to me was to try writing a novel where I could actually create my version of Japan. I could create a whole world. My personal Japan would be saved in a book. I think that’s almost certainly why I turned to fiction, because I wasn’t somebody who had great ambitions to be a writer before.

Japan didn’t exist anywhere, apart from in my head. It might have a vague correspondence to the place I’d arrived at off the plane, but I realized that it was my own private Japan. I realized that it was fading. It was disappearing with every year that I got older.

Did your parents read your novels?

Oh yeah. They read my novels straight away. In fact, they read the short stories that were set in Japan, which I wrote before the novels. They were very encouraging. My mother had quite a lot to do with my earlier work—the memories of Nagasaki. She would tell me, “In this short story you wrote, Japanese people are talking about the end of the war before it actually happens. But actually, nobody did. It was absolutely taboo to mention the end of the war. The war wasn’t going to end in anything other than victory.” That was before I wrote my first novel.

So somewhere at the very foundation of my writing, I linked writing fiction to the act of remembering. The way my novels were written tended to have a memory-esque device, a storytelling device that seemed to come naturally to what I was trying to do. This is all part of that project to pin down a half-remembered world. I moved on from that after the first two novels because I felt safe about my pride in Japan.

You had archived it and you could move on.

Exactly. But I think that fascination with memory remained—to some extent, almost like a technical device to tell a story. I discovered early on that there were a lot advantages for me to tell a story through someone’s memories. You get enormous control over the storytelling process. You don’t get locked in the linear chronological unfolding of the story. Instead, there’s someone who’s picking out memories from points in time and putting them side by side, sometimes out of sequence. Then the reader starts to wonder, “so what’s the relationship between this memory and that memory? Is the narrator manipulating memory or is there a lot of self-deception here?” I became interested in how people told the story of their own lives to themselves and how they deceive themselves. How sometimes they wanted to look at shameful episodes from the past that they had participated in and other times they absolutely did not want to look at those things.

Lately, I’ve become increasingly interested in social memory and also memory within a relationship, like a marriage. This novel deals with those two things rather than one individual’s struggle with the question of remembering or forgetting. It’s about how two ethnic groups within a nation or a society uneasily coexist. Maybe their ability to coexist depends on certain memories being buried—because not so far back in history, something terrible happened. If the forgetfulness disappears, something awful is going to erupt.

There’s a parallel question when it comes to a relationship, particularly long relationships like a marriage. The parent-child or any relationship tends to become dependent on some unspoken agreement not to go to certain memories, certain dark passages. After a while, you start to ask, Is our bond, is our love, based on something phony if it depends on things being kept hidden? I think that at any point in a community’s history, there are often powerful reasons why some things should stay hidden, even if occasionally that means awful things go unpunished or justices and grievances aren’t addressed. There are times when the community needs to look at the past, and look at the things it hasn’t been looking at, because otherwise there will be a festering wound in society that won’t go away.

I read in some interviews that you were inspired by Rwanda or Yugoslavia, but you didn’t want to base the novel in either of those settings, because in shifting it to a more fantastical setting you could explore the theme of national memory in a more direct way. I was wondering if you thought you’d actually ended up writing a book about national memory that was still specific—not to a fantasy world, but to images of Britain, which you’ve dealt with in the past. Do you think this book was interrogating myths of British nationalism?

I don’t know if this book is particularly concerned with Britain more than any other country. The reason I didn’t set it in Rwanda or the old Yugoslavia that disintegrated or South Africa after apartheid isn’t because I didn’t think that a great book could be written like that. It’s just that I thought I couldn’t do it. To do a book like that justice you can’t use a recent, very important, and traumatic piece of somebody’s history as your raw material. I think you’d feel a duty or obligation to research as thoroughly as possible. You have your duties as a journalist and a historian, alongside that of a writer of fiction. I didn’t want to write a novel about Bosnia and Kosovo. I wanted to write a novel that suggested there were recurring patterns in human history.

I became interested in how people told the story of their own lives to themselves and how they deceive themselves. How sometimes they wanted to look at shameful episodes from the past that they had participated in and other times they absolutely did not want to look at those things.

To go back to the novel, I thought it was interesting to read it almost like Holy Grail fan fiction. You have Sir Gawain wandering around like a samurai in Western Europe. In the original Holy Grail stories, of which Gawain is a Grail knight, the secret magic is the exercise of empathy: you heal the wasteland by asking the injured king, What ails thee uncle? But in this book, you have the sleeping dragon, but as a negative grail. Rather than restoring vitality of the land through positive force, he erases everything. What struck me is that while forgetting creates the peace, there is no room for forgiveness. Memory will cause the war. Is reconciliation possible? There are only a few points where you talk about that.

I don’t know much about the Grail. My Arthur is a quasi-historical figure—possibly the Arthur of myth was based on a real military leader who was around at the time, who did win a big victory that maintained the peace.

The question about reconciliation is a more interesting one. This is a big generalization, but I think if you look around the world now, you can see examples of peace that has been achieved through genuine reconciliation and genuine negotiation and genuine consensus. If you look at Europe in the first half of the 20th Century and then you look at Europe in the second half of the 20th Century, it’s fair to say that the peace that came over Europe is quite a remarkable one—a properly won peace. Yes, the most horrendous wars had to be fought to achieve it, but it doesn’t feel like that peace is something that is being maintained through strong military rule.

What we seem to be witnessing in the Middle East is that the removal of some nasty dictator reveals the schisms that have been preserved for generations. To take the example you pointed out, when Yugoslavia disintegrated the communist regime enforced a kind of peace, but as soon as communism had fallen, all those old hatreds just erupted again. A very interesting case of societal memory being carefully wielded and mobilized by powerful factions.

When you talk about The Buried Giant, I don’t think there was any reconciliation involved in that peace—it was an enforced peace. In many cases the peace that seems to exist in The Buried Giant is not won through reconciliation or forgiveness or negotiation or consensus. It’s just military rule maintaining a kind of peace. It can only be maintained by force or in this case some sort of strange trickery.

Dragon’s breath.

Yeah. I’m fascinated by the way a community can forget things and agree that some things should remain unspoken. Every nation, not necessarily the ones that have gone through recent trauma like the ones we mentioned, but even the United States has buried giants.

Unlike New Zealand, the United States never really had a full-out reconciliation process with the Native American genocide or slavery.

Just before I came here somebody emailed me about a human rights lawyer who was on BBC talking about Ferguson and saying that the United States needs a formal truth and reconciliation process. Maybe it’s time now to formalize it, rather than carrying on while some people suggest it’s better to take all that history out of the schoolbooks. Maybe there should be a formalized way of trying to balance these things. How much forgetting is suitable? How much remembering is needed? We’ll never heal this thing until we do.

I don’t want to single out the United States, but I think, in a way, the United States has the ability and the moral fiber to do something like that. A lot of other countries wouldn’t even be able to consider it. But almost any country I look at or think about for a little while has its own buried giants. France. Britain. Japan.

With Britain, it’s to do with how the empire was acquired, how the empire was maintained, and how the empire was let go. Lots of people will avoid thinking about the very, very dark side of empire, which also includes slavery on a massive scale. People tend to say the British introduced good education systems and civil service in India and stuff like this.

But there are also concentration camps in Kenya, Aden, and Malaysia, and of course, awful things in India as well.

Yes, yes, many. I think British people are very selective about remembering that and it continues to have all kinds of implications for race relations today. Even the way people think about the latest waves of immigration from Europe.

In Japan—and I’m very distant from Japan, so I’m looking at this from a great distance—but there has always been this conflict with China and Southeast Asia about the history of the Second World War. The Japanese have decided to forget that they were aggressors and all the things that the Japanese Imperial Army did in China and South Asia in those years.

Like the Rape of Nanking.

That’s a prime example, but many, many things. It was systematic—from the 1930s onwards to the end of the Second World War. The Japanese generally don’t like to think about that, partly because the West desperately wanted the Japanese to forget at the end of the Second World War. Japan needed to be built into a strong liberal democracy.

Incorporated into the capitalist world economy—

Yes, because that part of the world needed a powerful capitalist country. The Cold War had started and the West needed a very strong ally against China and the USSR. The Americans did not try to make the Japanese remember or feel too bad. They focused on Japan’s recovery, on making it as strong and confident as possible. And you could argue that there was some good sense in that. Japan turned into a very strong liberal democracy, as well as an economic powerhouse. Who is to say that it would’ve been better if Japanese society had fragmented, with purges, and chasing down war criminals at every level.

You have your duties as a journalist and a historian, alongside that of a writer of fiction. I didn’t want to write a novel about Bosnia and Kosovo. I wanted to write a novel that suggested there were recurring patterns in human history.

I completely agree with your example around Ferguson. The theorist Göran Therborn has said that it makes sense not to count the United States as a democracy until the 1960s because of segregation. Looking at these very historically situated examples makes me rethink your book. You can never escape the return of the repressed, and these historical memories that are not witnessed will always cycle back.

One thing that struck me is that a lot of the characters in your books often have an antagonistic or slippery relationship with personal or public memory. The characters’ public selves and their private selves are at odds with each other. They are often people who are connected to a larger political commitment or ideology, but find that without them realizing it, it’s let them down. Whether it’s Imperial Japan or the boss who has alliances that you didn’t really realize or the characters in this book who have certain ethnic, political, or regional allegiances—at the end of the day, the public commitments don’t match up to how they are in their individual lives, their private memories.

Certainly in the early books, I was concerned with the inevitable lack of perspective that most of us have about our own actions.

Almost like the banality of evil.

Yeah, even if you don’t participate in something as blatantly evil as the Holocaust, everyone at every level gets touched by that evil. Most people aren’t remarkable. They aren’t remarkably courageous, they’re not remarkably perceptive, so if you happen to be unfortunate enough to be part of a society that history tells you is participating in something shameful, I think it’s very difficult to avoid being contaminated by that evil. You go along with the flow, you go along with the crowd.

That’s the case with Axl and Gawain in this book.

To some extent, yes. Axl, I guess, at the moment when he realizes that he has participated in something that he doesn’t approve of, he basically leaves that kind of life and tries to forget it. There’s more of a sense that he was duped. Whereas with somebody like Stevens, the butler in Remains of the Day, or even Ono, the artist in An Artist of Floating World, there’s a sense not so much that they were duped, but that they just weren’t perceptive enough. It was just beyond them to get the perspective because they’re people who live in small worlds and they were doing their utmost to lead good lives. It was just that they weren’t remarkable and their lives were contaminated by the history that was around them.

I think it’s slightly different maybe. Axl thought his bosses were sincere and he believed in that. Basically, the regime he worked for betrayed him. At that point, he walks out. In all these cases, it’s very easy to contribute to something you may not believe in fully.

Gawain is rapt with conscience, but he’s too old to change. He is a bit Stevens-like. He’s a bit like the samurai who doesn’t question the clans. He’s the very last of them. And he’s got something on his side as well. His argument is that surely, this is keeping the peace: “You bring all that up again and it’s going to cause more mayhem. It’s not just [that] I’m trying to hide my guilt, but I’m trying desperately to maintain this fragile peace.”

I think it’s valid to some extent. His argument at the end is that, although it is a sort of false peace, if he keeps it going for long enough, maybe people will permanently forget. The reply to that is—that’s never going to happen. Which is what Wistan basically says.

History will always come back.

Yeah, the giant will always erupt because this peace is built on something absolutely foul.

Most people aren’t remarkably courageous, they’re not remarkably perceptive, so if you happen to be unfortunate enough to be part of a society that history tells you is participating in something shameful, I think it’s very difficult to avoid being contaminated by that evil.

To switch gears a little bit—at the beginning of your career, you might have felt like you were typecast as a Japanese novelist. I was wondering if there were ways you thought being an immigrant or being Japanese influenced your work after the first two novels. For example, I remember reading that the model for Stevens or the idea of the butler came from this joke that you and your wife had that you pretended to be the butler of your own home, which seemed to me to be a racial joke.

That’s not actually quite accurate. That related to a play that I went on to write for television. It was a story about an aging butler who had written a novel thirty years earlier, when he was younger and full of ambition. It didn’t get published, so he had forgotten about it and he’s become this rather stuffy butler. For some reason, the novel is published all these years later and people proclaim him as a literary genius. The film is about this arts program coming to do a profile of this butler in his house—a comic film. These people are trying to get an interview with this guy, but he’s going around in the role of the butler. He doesn’t really want to remember the ambitions he had to be a writer thirty years earlier. He’s proud but also embarrassed about the fact that this novel appeared all these years later, because it implies that he wasted all those years.

That didn’t have any racial connotation to it. It was actually a metaphor about England immediately after the Second World War, when there was great optimism that society was going to become classless. This guy, he thinks that society is changing, so even somebody like him can be a great writer. And then he’s knocked back, and everything veers back. He’s a servant for thirty years. It was the idea of looking at the lost socialist dreams of a classless Britain.

I read that you were a big fan of Westerns and cowboy movies as a kid. Since you are so good at genre hopping, I was wondering if you would ever write a Western or cowboy story.

I would love to be able to write a Western. It’s just technically beyond me because it’s such an American thing. What I would really love to do is to write a screenplay for a Western movie because I think I’m more of a fan of the Western movie rather than the Western book. Although I do have to say that True Grit by Charles Portis is a terrific novel. That’s the only Western he’s ever written and he writes all sorts of things. It’s a very, very good book, and it’s very funny. Great first person narrator—a fourteen-year-old girl. Real sense of that period, after the American Civil War. But by in large, when I say I love the Westerns, I mean I love Western movies. I guess there’s a crossover with the samurai movies of [Akira] Kurosawa or [Masaki] Kobayashi samurai movies.

Do you ever wish you had written a samurai movie?

If somebody came to me now and said, “We need a script for a samurai movie or a Western movie”—I’d say “Yeah, I’d definitely be interested.” I do think that there’s something about the Western that’s maybe at its best when it’s a movie. It’s a genre that’s made for the cinema. The visuals. The figure of the lonely rider, the wide landscape and the big sky. Particularly the aged gun fighter who’s kind of out of time and whose companions have all vanished.

If somebody came to me now and said, “We need a script for a samurai movie or a Western movie”—I’d say “Yeah, I’d definitely be interested.”

That fatalistic, dignified but decrepit mission.

You know the movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid? The Pat Garrett character is a classic version of that figure. He’s out of time but he’s still quite elegant and formidable. He’s a former outlaw who’s nearly sold out to become a lawman who’s hunting his old comrades. And so he’s almost destroying himself when he’s hunting for his old friends, who he did care for. I love things like that.

Those characters sound like Ishiguro types.

They are absolutely Ishiguro types. I’ve been profoundly influenced by them.

Do you have a favorite samurai movie?

I have quite a few favorite samurai movies.

I did think there were parts where Wistan and the kid are walking around that reminded me of Zatoichi.

You mean the latest one? I’m only really familiar with the recent one by Takeshi Kitano. There have been dozens and dozens.

But probably the greatest samurai movie is Seven Samurai. The biggest difference between that and The Magnificent Seven is that there’s a real sense of that samurai class, suffering from generations of structuralized unemployment. The class that refuses to give up being a class, although they have no place in society anymore because civil wars have ended. And they’re desperate, you know. They’re hungry, they’re poor, but they won’t give up being samurai and giving up their position and their class system. I think that’s a great movie. And it has some of the most moving action sequences ever.

But as I say that, and I’m expressing this very crudely, Kurosawa tends to be pro-samurai and he celebrates the samurai. Kobayashi is the great anti-samurai values man. He makes great movies about how horrific that samurai value system is. By implication, I suppose he’s criticizing a lot of the things in modern Japanese society that he sees as the echoes of that sort of oppressive system. I admire his films as well. Harakiri and Rebellion are two great movies.

I wonder if you’ve seen Kon Ichikawa’s anti-war films?

Yeah. I haven’t seen Fires on the Plain. People say it’s quite heartrending. The Burmese Heart is very beautiful—indeed that’s a film about reconciliation. It has a great spirit to it. Some of it is slightly soft-hearted, but there’s that scene where the two armies are singing. Do you remember that singing? Where they realize the war has come to an end? [The Japanese and the British soldiers] think they’re about to fight, but this particular [Japanese] regiment is led by a choirmaster. They’ve been rehearsing these British songs, so when they start to sing, the British recognize the song and start to sing. It’s kinda corny, but it’s a very moving moment. Both sides realize that the war is officially over at that point. There’s no need for them to fight.

Hear Kazuo Ishiguro read from his new novel, The Buried Giant