‘Imagine’: An Insight into Kazuo Ishiguro’s life

By Lara Bryant 

I think we can all agree that most people’s T.B.R lists have skyrocketed in length since the pandemic began, and with nothing much to do all day but sit around aimlessly, I’m sure most people (myself included!) have read more books than they thought humanly possible.

Thanks to the likes of TikTok and its many trending ‘Book Recs’ videos, one author on everyone’s mind is Kazuo Ishiguro, and, specifically, his bestselling novel ‘Never Let Me Go’. Once again it is making the rounds on social media and  appearing on everyone’s ‘most loved’ reads of lockdown. 

Back in March, the BBC released an in-depth and personal documentary about the best-selling author, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Alan Yentob sat down to gain an insight into his intriguing world.

Early life in Japan

The documentary begins with Ishiguro’s early life living in Japan and takes us on a four-decade journey of his writing career all the way up to modern day and the brand-new release of his most recent novel ‘Klara and the Sun’. If you’re interested in the author, and yearn to know more about his interesting life, then this documentary is perfect for you. 

Ishiguro starts with his early childhood. Born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954, he explains the increasing division within the city, highlighted mainly as the period ‘before’ and ‘after’. ‘After’ being the period of years after the Second World War, more importantly, after the atomic bomb that fell upon the city. Those around him were still dealing with the aftermath, and memories of the tragic incident were still extremely poignant as they tried to rebuild the city and their home. However, Ishiguro moved to Surrey, England at the age of six, in 1960, where his life really began.

Viewers gain a true insight into Ishiguro’s brief childhood in Japan as Yentob produces and displays various photographs of the author and his family living in the Japanese City. Ishiguro recalls fond memories of his paternal grandparents who came from Samurai families, and the treasures and valuables that they have kept over the decades. 

However, Ishiguro’s first love was not writing but actually music, and he even dreamed of one day becoming a singer-songwriter. He shares with Yentob that he even left England for America for 3 months in 1974 in hopes of getting his big break and musical stardom. Evidently this did not go to plan, and instead Ishiguro pursued writing, but not without leaving his love of music behind.     

Early writing

The documentary then proceeds to, one-by-one, cover each of Ishiguro’s novels and writing career, allowing viewers to understand and appreciate the background of each one and how each one came to be.

Ishiguro’s debut novel, ‘A Pale View of Hills’, was released in 1982. Ishiguro reveals that by writing this novel he was able to explore his own memories and experiences of post-war Nagasaki through the eyes of someone else. The novel portrays a woman who has moved from Japan to England and looks back at her life after the death of her daughter. Ishiguro explains to Yentob that his debut novel was very similar to the kinds of songs he was writing at the time and that there was a clear overlap between his novel writing and songwriting. 

“Ishiguro demonstrates nuance and fragility in human lives that we must take seriously” – Ai-da, an Artificial Intelligence robot, interviewed for the documentary.

Moving forward, Ishiguro explores his second novel ‘An Artist of the Floating World’, published in 1986. Again, the novel explores post-war Japan as an artist attempts to understand his past. The novel touches on the rise of fascism in Japan and how the evil things of the protagonist’s past are robbing him of dignity in his old age. 

Once again, the documentary portrays the parallels between Ishiguro’s writing and his own life.

Adult Life and Changing Identity

Not only does the documentary focus on Ishiguro’s novels, but also his life in general. During his adult life, now married and living in London, Ishiguro and Yentob discuss Ishiguro’s changing identity and weakening connection to Japan. The author began to question his integrity as, although much of his work was mainly metaphorical, people took his writing about Japan very literally, stating “I began to feel like a phoney”. He began to question whether he’d be able to survive in his field without “all the Japanese stuff” and this led him to question his artistic abilities.

Due to this revelation, his third novel, ‘The Remains of the Day’, had all traces of Japan gone. Still touching on the theme of memory, however, the novel follows an English butler working in a stately home revisiting his past in the years leading up to the Second World War. 

Viewers even get an insight from best-selling author Bernadine Evaristo, among many others. 

“There’s something so extraordinarily old-fashioned, but almost hypnotic about his use of language”, Evaristocomments on ‘The Remains of the Day’. 

‘Never Let Me Go’ and Recent Work

Ishiguro discusses his most well-known and successful novel, ‘Never Let Me Go’, and explores its themes without spoiling it to those who have yet to read it. Topics such as  class and the exploitation of the underclass, to themes of choice and freedom are discussed. Yet, Ishiguro doesn’t give too much away – which is very much appreciated. There is nothing worse than a documentary that gives away too many spoilers! 

The documentary ends by touching on Ishiguro’s brand-new novel ‘Klara and the Sun’. An AI robot is even interviewed by Alan Yentob regarding the novel’s use of artificial intelligence robots and their relationships with humans.  

This documentary gives viewers a chronological insight into each of Ishiguro’s novels all the while weaving in parts and experiences of his life. It does so without revealing too many spoilers. Perfect for anyone who is interested in the author and his life but may not have read all his novels. This review is only the tip of the iceberg – if you’re interested in Kazuo Ishiguro, his life, and his inspiration for his writing then this documentary is worth a watch.