The novel begins in October 1948, when Japan is three years into the humiliating defeat of World War II. It is trying to stumble back to normalcy and yet, the coming times are marked by a decisive break from the past in many ways. Masuji Ono, a retired painter, is passing his days quietly - 'moping around the house', spending time with his grandson and most of the time, thinking of the days that were. His only big concern in present times is the marriage negotiations of his second daughter Noriko. She is 26 and beginning to get sullen about still being unmarried.
Ono was a famous and respected painter during his heyday, but one who used his art for propaganda and thus played a role in leading Japan into World War II. Many others of his generation - businessmen, social workers, composers - have similar track records. Today, they are hated, being thought responsible for the present situation of Japan and the immense suffering that people, particularly the young, had to undergo during the war. Ono's efforts for Noriko's marriage have also met with failure due to this aspect of his past. With the book moving forward in time we see Ono trying to contact his old acquaintances, for one reason or the other, with mixed results. He is 'wished away' by his once close associates, mostly politely. This saddens and irritates him but also causes him to question his past actions and reason whether he was right or wrong.
Ono spends a great while remembering his days in the tutelage of the then-famous artist, Moriyama, who was a celebrator of beauty. Together, they spent many an evening in pleasure houses, painting dancers, bar-women and geishas. Moriyama reportedly endeavored to 'capture the light of a lantern' in his painting and encouraged his students too to try for such things. This is the floating world which Ono was once part of. But he soon 'turned traitor', exhorted by a social worker Matsuda, and devoted his art for alleviation of the social ills that were so starkly present around them.
He moves on to admit his mistakes and apologize for them in public, although maintaining that they were committed in good faith. Others around him seem to let go of their hatred at seeing him humble himself. In fact, his daughters and sons-in-law who were once obliquely critical now reassure him, again obliquely, that he need not feel guilty.
The book fades into a climax - with the passage of time the wounds of Japan seem to be healing, and Ono's family life is taking a turn for the better. Noriko gets married; two grandchildren are in the offing. In accordance, Ono also resigns to the reign of the present generation, wishes them well, and finally seems to forget the moral quandaries that confronted him.
This report prepared by Rahul Agarwal