Everyone has a guy they can’t resist. For the writer Kazuo Ishiguro, they are old people. Old men secretly fear that they have spent entire lives on the wrong side of history. Old people born in a world of certainties, transplanted into a different, more uncertain world. Old people ask themselves, as many of us will (if we haven’t already): “What was all this for?”
But as I wait in the offices of a West End PR firm to interview Sir Kazuo about his new film with Bill Nighy, Living, I can’t help but wonder what those unlikely concerns are for the nation’s greatest living literary talent. Those of us with monotonous lives can dream of winning a Nobel Prize. But in Ishiguro, we have a perverted Nobel laureate who can’t help but fantasize about a life of mediocrity or failure.
In his Booker Prize-winning novel Leftovers of the day (1989) is English butler Stevens (memorably played by Anthony Hopkins in the film version of Merchant and Ivory) who looks back on a life of service only to be harassed, after World War II, by the feeling that he always had served the wrong master – a Nazi collaborator. In Ishiguro’s previous novel A floating world artist (1986), the aging painter, Ono, broods on much the same thing, in post-fascist Japan. These themes now take on a new form. Although directed by South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, Living was an original idea by Ishiguro, a remake by Akira Kurosawa Ikiru (1952) which tells the story of Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), a terminally ill bureaucrat in 1950s London, whose dying wish is to make a difference after a life of conformity.
As Ishiguro arrives, exactly on time, a small party for film industry types takes place in the lobby. In a rain-soaked trench coat, the kind favored by men of a certain generation, he looks like an outsider. Although he is no stranger to bohemianism, Ishiguro’s imaginative affinities somehow lie with a different kind of person and scene, the kind that prompted the New Yorker recognize in his work a quality of “almost punitive blandness” (destined, apparently, for praise).
“I thought I would have an ordinary life,” Ishiguro tells me, recalling his childhood in the suburban town of Guildford, where he arrived aged five from bombed-out Nagasaki in the late 1950s. “We lived in this little cul-de-sac, where my mother lived in the same house until her death; it was like a small community. His Japanese family was “treated very well, despite this recent history of enmity”, and his experiences were typically middle-class. “I even sang in the local choir,” recalls Ishiguro, who also attended high school and later university in provincial towns (Canterbury, Norwich) rather than on the Oxbridge treadmill.
Surrounding him all along were those ordinary, narrow, bottled people who had served king, country, or empire only to have their values placed under a moral microscope—notably, ultimately, in Ishiguro’s own work. “What would I have done, he admits on many occasions, if I had been of their generation? His characters – Stevens, Ono and now the time clerks in Living – all pass the buck. “I think it’s self-indulgent to say as a generation after that we would never have been like this.”
The fascination for his elders came very early. There’s an image that Ishiguro describes in his 2017 Nobel lecture of how, when taking a commuter train to school, he ‘shar[ed] the car every morning with rows of men in pinstripe suits and bowler hats, on their way to their offices in London’ – a vision of the past reminiscent of Larkin and his ‘fools in old-fashioned hats and coats,/ Who half the time were soppy-stern’.
The memory would not leave Ishiguro, with each passing year becoming a more powerful image of a vanished world, until it became the defining visual motif of his storyline for Living. The lives of the civil servants portrayed in the film all have the regularity of a train schedule – no unscheduled stops, no detours – and the sound of wheels rolling on the tracks is a reminder of the pointless careers they have as cogs of the London County Council bureaucratic machine. It’s wonderfully evocative. (Still, Ishiguro mocks himself: “I don’t know how to write scripts.”)
As the end approaches, Mr. Williams realizes what Stevens in Leftovers of the day also comes to suspect: that they lived up to their quintessentially English ideals, the gentleman in the bowler hat and the butler in the black tie, only to find themselves in an England incredibly indifferent to all that they were proud of. early sensitivity to this predicament, which he began writing about in his mid-twenties, long before any personal experience of it. “It was just an instinct I had when I was young,” he says.
And if it was the experience of migration that had founded all this? Wasn’t Ishiguro only five years old, moved from one world to another? Getting away from the world around him, isn’t that what happens to old people who captivate him? “I think there’s something to what you say, ‘the past is a foreign country’ and all that”, although he later reflects that “very few English people ask about the past” .
But Ishiguro observes a vital difference between ‘migrating into old age’ and simply migrating: a difference in the ‘appetite’ for novelty. Immigrants still have one and are famous for it; old people have lost theirs, so we despise them. “People like me in my 60s are being asked to think about the world in terms of climate change, rather than the old arguments about communism versus capitalism,” Ishiguro says. “But too much energy has already been expended to understand the world in just one set of terms.”
It’s a feeling that challenges any aging artist. In his Nobel Lecture, Ishiguro asks, “Can I, a weary author, of an intellectually weary generation, now find the energy to look at this unknown place? His own work provides an interesting answer. What is so subversive in his way of confronting this ignorance inflicted by time on the ancients is that, even if Living may be “a fictional re-enactment of a Britain, remembered from childhood, which very quickly vanishes”, Ishiguro has developed a method of envisioning the past without nostalgia, where the stories we tell about it become rather objects of mistrust. “We are all unreliable storytellers, not just to others, but to ourselves,” he explains.
Ishiguro refers to a technique he is famous for mastering in his novels. But isn’t it harder to get the camera to deceive or dodge? “That’s one of the differences between film and written fiction,” Ishiguro acknowledges. “It’s harder to have unreliable narrators, just as it’s hard to get the memory blur on screen.” He quotes Kurosawa Rashomon like a rare successful film. Ishiguro has stated publicly – after being questioned several times – that he is not very influenced by Japanese literature, but what about Japanese films?
It lights up. “I was taken to the movies in Nagasaki when I was four,” he recalls, “and among the movies that came out of Japan in the 1950s, there were a ridiculous number of masterpieces. ” It turns out to have been central to his work, albeit underexplored in critical appraisals of it. “The Japanese filmmakers of this period marked me enormously. When I started writing fiction in the early 1980s, I copied Ozu,” he admits, referring to the director of History of Tokyo (1953) which, he explains, also depict “displaced old people in the modern world”. But even more than this now familiar theme, it was Ozu’s invention of a style perfectly suited to this culture of restraint – slow, dignified, elliptical – that was most inspiring. “When I’m writing even in a more Western environment,” Ishiguro recalled thinking to himself, “I’m going to have the courage to go really, really slow.”
Early in his career, Ishiguro says, it wasn’t clear whether he was going to be a screenwriter or a novelist. For a while he made a living with the first but there weren’t enough films, and so the loss of cinema was the gain of literature.
His involvement in the film industry persists though, with seven projects in development, including at Netflix, in addition to being a judge at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Salman Rushdie once observed how “Ishiguro’s sentience was not rooted in one place, but able to travel and shapeshift”. He’s also not rooted in any particular form of creativity, and if, like Mr. Williams, Ishiguro has one last chance to turn around, I wonder if it wouldn’t be from novelist to filmmaker.