Masuji Ono’s early memories of home life in his small village involve exclusion from the formal reception room, that was barred to him as a child until he was 12 years old. At that age, he was required to go to weekly “business meetings” with his father and was miserable because he did not understand what his father was talking about. He wanted to be an artist, but his father saw that as the path to living “in squalor and poverty” and burned Ono’s paintings ceremonially when he was 15. He referred to the wandering priest’s diagnosis of “a flaw in [Ono’s] nature. A weak streak that would give him a tendency towards slothfulness and deceit” (46). However, the impact of his father’s action was to kindle Ono’s ambition to be an artist.
He arrived in the (unnamed) city where he’s spent the rest of his life in 1913. He worked hard and was very poor, living and painting late into the night in a poorly lit attic room in which he couldn’t fully stand up. Yet he was happy because he was making a living as an artist in Takeda’s studio, which mass produced paintings for foreign consumption (maybe the equivalent of paintings of Elvis on black velvet?).
At Takeda’s, he met his friend, the Tortoise (so named for his slowness in painting), who came about a year after Ono. He urged the Tortoise to join him in leaving Takeda’s factory approach to painting for Moriyama, “a true artist. In all likelihood, a great one” (71). The Tortoise raised the issue of loyalty, which Ono dismissed rather airily, as he remembers the conversation about leaving Takeda when he reminisces in 1948.
While at Moriyama’s, before 1920, he met Matsuda, an “arrogant” young man working for the Okada-Shingen Society, which promoted exhibits by talented artists that brought them wider public acknowledgment. The Society had a political agenda, of which Ono’s teacher Moriyama did not approve. Matsuda succeeded in influencing Ono’s views and, in a sense, recruiting him for the cause of Japanese military expansionism by showing him the reality of a desperately poor shantytown that the politicians and businessmen were ignoring. The images that stayed with Ono took shape in his painting “Complacency,” which led to his leaving Moriyama. The painting depicts a contrast between “complacent,” prosperous middle-aged men and impoverished young men holding sticks, posed in a kendo (martial arts) stance; the coastline of Japan indicates this is a national issue; the words on the painting, “complacency” and “but the young are ready to fight for their dignity,” make it more of a propaganda poster than an artistic painting. Another painting by Ono inspired by the same images is “Eyes on the Horizon,” available as a print throughout the city in the 1930s, contrasts the nervousness of real-life politicians with young soldiers looking toward China (to the west of the Japanese coastline), whose attitude is defined in the text on the picture, “No time for cowardly talking. Japan must go forward.” These visual images were intended to inspire the patriotic to support militarism. Through Matsuda’s teaching (in the form of conversations between friends), Ono came to adopt the political stance that the Emperor was in the clutches of “businessmen and their politicians” (173) and that only through military might could Japan expand, as the Western colonial powers had earlier done, and take their rightful place in the world, demonstrating their worthiness of respect.
However, in taking this stance, Ono alienated his friend, the Tortoise, who was devoted to art itself rather than art meant to promote political views, and earned himself dismissal by Moriyama, whom Ono had come to see as decadent. Matsuda’s political position dismissed art for art’s sake as naïve and irresponsible, while Moriyama’s devotion to art as an aesthetic endeavor showed him to be the true artist. From this point on, Ono would create images for the purpose of inspiring patriotism and militarism; that is, he became a propagandist at this point. (For more information on propaganda, see The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.  online.)
Ono went on to become fairly well-known and respected as an artist, we think, but his preoccupation with status throughout the novel and his constant reexamination and reevaluation of his status make it difficult for the reader to accurately interpret just how wide his reputation spread. He produced only political art, however, from that time forward. He attracted students, the most talented of whom was Kuroda and the least talented of whom was Shintaro, clearly not very intelligent, given his naïveté about living in an occupied country after the war. During the height of Ono’s fame and influence, his students adopted his beliefs, and Kuroda created a painting of “The Patriotic Spirit,” which depicted the origins of patriotism in the meetings of artists and intellectuals in places like the Migi-Hidari. Ono exerted his influence on behalf of the owner of the Migi-Hidari, which at its opening in the early 1930s displayed a banner with a background of the marching feet of soldiers; Ono petitioned the authorities on behalf of this patriotic establishment that would counteract the decadence, the decay of moral fibre, that he associated with much of artistic and intellectual culture.
Ono’s new career then earned him a post on the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department and to advise the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. In that capacity, he informed on his talented pupil Kuroda. Arriving at Kuroda’s house, he found that the police had burned most of his paintings, taking only a few as evidence of his unpatriotic sentiments and activities, and had jailed Kuroda. After the war, Ono learned that Kuroda had been beaten by the police; when he spotted him on the street one day, he noticed that Kuroda’s face was haggard and that he appeared to have aged a great deal. Thus, Ono came to use his power and influence to have others accused of treason to the government, though he protests in his postwar reflections that he didn’t realize to what extent the police would maltreat Kuroda (and this is probably true, because Ono shows signs of the naïveté of which Matsuda accused him, a naïveté of which Matsuda took advantage, manipulating Ono to put his talent to work for Japanese militarism).
It was during the 1930s that Ono was given the opportunity to purchase Mr. Sugimura’s house, a larger and more imposing house than he thought he could purchase, and his negotiations with Sugimura’s daughters show that he had indeed attained power and influence at that time. His wife was uncomfortable about the Sugimuras’ “high-handedness,” but Ono overruled her objections, pointing out that soon enough they would be subjected to investigations in the course of negotiating marriages for Setsuko and Noriko and, besides, all the Sugimuras would learn would confirm Ono’s claim to prestige. Setsuko married a couple of years before the war, in the late 1930s; at the time of her marriage, Suichi was quiet and polite, giving no indication of the anger he would show after the war. Noriko’s comments after the war lead the reader to conclude that Ono took a strong patriarchal position as head of the family throughout his period of power and influence.
The war embittered the younger members of the family—Suichi and Noriko. Suichi suffered in military service in Manchuria (China), and he became very angry as he attended funerals for many young men he had known, including his brother-in-law (Ono’s son) Kenji. Kenji died crossing a minefield. Many young people, after the war, hold the older generation responsible for having committed them to a cause they think was unjustified, for having caused needless suffering. Ono mentions suicides of a composer of patriotic songs and the head of a company that contributed to the war effort. Ono’s family has suffered significant loss in addition to Kenji’s death as a soldier: their house was damaged by a bomb and Ono’s wife was killed. Setsuko and Noriko no doubt still grieve for their mother.
Suichi has endorsed American values by encouraging his son Ichiro’s playing at being the Lone Ranger and Popeye; other young people feel that it is right and proper for older men to commit suicide as a means of apologizing for the harm they have caused. Noriko’s anger at her father is evident in the many slighting remarks she makes about him to Setsuko in front of him. Ono rebels against having his life controlled by Noriko, as is evident in his encouraging Ichiro to participate in men’s culture and by making fun of the women’s supposed fear of the monster movie.
However, he is clearly a defeated man, someone who has been forced to reconsider his values, due to his sense of loss and his sense of responsibility for the impact of his actions on Noriko’s prospects at the very least—but more profoundly, his sense of responsibility for the harm he caused other people by using his influence. He has lost the respect that he strived throughout his life to gain. Even his former pupil Shintaro repudiates him eventually, when he asks Ono to vouch for him as not really having held the opinions he held during the war, so that he can get a job in American-occupied post-war Japan. Shintaro’s attempt to distance himself from Ono is like Ono’s attempt to distance himself from Matsuda.
In 1948-1950, Ono comes to terms with his past and succeeds in negotiating a marriage for Noriko. He finds ways to live with and forgive himself for the harm he has done..