The Floating World

Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd. / Pingmag

Reading back on this post, it feels a little school-research-project-y, but bear with me plz.

A few months ago I went with some friends to the Frist art museum in Nashville. We were bored and poor, and the museum was free, so it seemed like a good way to fill our Friday evening.

I saw things. I thought things. I wrote about things. And now, six months later when it is relevant to no one but me, I thought I’d share a few of these things.

First of all, a quick (not boring whatsoever) art lesson: in the late 1800s, there was an art movement called japonisme, which marked the beginning of a huge Japanese influence on European/Western art. This included a lot of things – heavier European focus on nature, lesser use of shadow and perspective, new techniques, the inspiration for what we now know as impressionism, etc etc etc.

This is all well and good, but it didn’t really strike my interest when I first saw the japonisme gallery. I’ve found that I’m sort of a selfish museum-goer — I’m only really interested when there is a story or a significance to a piece that I can apply to my own world view. Not to say that I’m close-minded or that I can’t appreciate pretty things, but I can’t stand just looking at paintings; I need to find inspiration in them for them to be memorable.

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of Japanese art at the time was the idea of ukiyo. Ukiyo means “floating world” and ukiyo-e woodblock prints were used to depict the pleasure-seeking aspects of the life of the wealthier class: beautiful landscapes, sumo wrestlers, nature, geishas, even brothels. As the Minnesota Institute of Arts puts it:

During the Edo Period (1615-1868), a uniquely Japanese art from developed known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” A Buddhist concept, ukiyo originally suggested the sadness (uki) of life (yo). But during the peace and prosperity of the 17th century, another ideograph, also pronounced uki but meaning “to float,” emerged. Instead of connoting sadness, ukiyo came to be associated with the momentary, worldly pleasures of Japan’s rising middle class. Unable to alter their social standing and regulated in nearly every aspect of their lives, from behavior and dress to the sizes of their houses, wealthy commoners found escape in licensed pleasure quarters and Kabuki theaters. There, they could watch handsome actors performing the latest plays or spend time with beautiful courtesans known for their sparkling wit, musical accomplishments, and poetry.

Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji as seen from Goten-Yama, ca 1830

If that’s too long, here’s my interpretation: the Floating World became an amazing subculture for a country that, at the time, was quite isolated. With such stressful and frustrating work lives, the people looked to the Floating World (art, plays, entertainment, connection) as an escape.

If you’ve seen the move Lost in Translation (BEST MOVIE EVER YEAH GO WATCH IT NOW), you might recognize this feeling. I am v intellectual and found this on the LiT Wikipedia page:

The author and filmmaker Anita Schillhorn van Veen interprets the film as a criticism of modernity, in which Tokyo is a contemporary “floating world” of fleeting pleasures that are too alienating and amoral to facilitate meaningful relationships.


The entire movie is focused on the relationship between two strangers, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray), staying in the same lavish hotel. Charlotte is a recent college grad in Tokyo for her husband’s celebrity photography business. While he is consumed by his work, she is isolated from her home without any exciting prospects, since she has no job or idea of what she wants to do. She spends most days alone in their hotel room, and can’t help but poke fun at her husband’s vapid clientele, which doesn’t help their relationship. Bob is an aging has-been movie star who accepts a million-dollar deal promoting a brand of whiskey in Tokyo. He’s going through a mid-life crisis, feeling guilty for choosing money over art, and continually working to avoid confronting problems with his wife and his physical/emotional distance from his children.

They gravitate towards each other because they are different, they get along, they help each other forget the unhappiness in the lives they lead.


Part of the magic of the movie is the fact that the characters only meet for a short period of time, in one situation. The hotel and Tokyo are like a white backdrop that ties no strings to their pasts – they can be whoever they want, free from the disillusionment that comes with knowing someone in everyday life. The karaoke nights they go to, the jazz band in the bar of their hotel, the superficial people they are surrounded by – they are all part of the floating world. The part that makes Charlotte and Bob’s relationship so special is their ability to break away from this world, to be real and candid and unabashedly honest with each other.


Charlotte: I just feel so alone, even when I’m surrounded by other people.


Charlotte: I’m stuck. Does it get easier?
Bob: No. Yes. It gets easier.
Charlotte: Oh yeah? Look at you.
Bob: Thanks. The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.


While I was researching japonisme and the idea of ukiyo, I stumbled upon this About page (again, v intellectual):

Despite being surrounded by exquisite beauty and every earthly pleasure, the merchants and samurai who partook of the Floating World seem to have been plagued by the feeling that their lives were meaningless and unchanging.

Before they properly meet, Charlotte and Bob both go to the swanky bar on the main floor of their hotel. The mood is relaxed, a jazz band plays in the corner, groups (even the one with which Charlotte is sitting) explode in laughter, and everyone feels important and successful enough to afford a drink. Still, being surrounded by worldly pleasures and things that should be fun makes them feel more isolated than anything.


Bob catches Charlotte’s eye across the room and they make fun of the people around them just through facial expressions, forming a connection before they even know anything concrete about one another. They understand, however morbidly, that the drinks and the bar and the music and the parties are only a distraction from the greater struggles in their lives.

I know that the Floating World still does and will likely always exist, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it is dangerous (to your happiness, to your relationships with other people) to see everything “pleasurable” as “vapid,” like Charlotte and Bob do at the bar. However, at the same time, spending too much time in the “floating world,” whatever yours may be, is just as dangerous. It’s fun while it lasts, but it only leaves you feeling empty.


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