Mono no aware
Mono no aware (物の哀れ?)[lower-alpha 1], literally "the pathos of things", and also translated as "an empathy toward things", or "a sensitivity to ephemera", is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō?), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.
The term mono no aware comes from Heian period literature, but was picked up and used by 18th century Edo period Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga in his literary criticism of The Tale of Genji, and later to other germinal Japanese works including the Man'yōshū. It became central to his philosophy of literature and eventually to Japanese cultural tradition.
The phrase is derived from the Japanese word mono (物?), which means "thing", and aware (哀れ?), which was a Heian period expression of measured surprise (similar to "ah" or "oh"), translating roughly as "pathos", "poignancy", "deep feeling", "sensitivity", or "awareness". Thus, mono no aware has frequently been translated as "the 'ahh-ness' of things, life, and love". Awareness of the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty, and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing. In his criticism of The Tale of Genji, Motoori noted that mono no aware is the crucial emotion that moves readers. Its scope was not limited to Japanese literature, and became associated with Japanese cultural tradition (see also sakura).
In contemporary culture
Notable manga artists who use mono no aware-style storytelling include Hitoshi Ashinano, Kozue Amano, and Kaoru Mori. In anime, both Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata and Mai Mai Miracle by Sunao Katabuchi emphasize the passing of time in gentle notes and by presenting the main plot against a parallel one from the past.
The Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu was well known for creating a sense of mono no aware, frequently climaxing with a character very understatedly saying "Ii tenki desu ne?" (いい天気ですね?, "Fine weather, isn't it?"), after a familial and societal paradigm shift, such as a daughter being married off, against the backdrop of a swiftly changing Japan. Ozu has often expressed feelings by showing the faces of objects rather than the face of an actor. Some examples include two fathers contemplating the rocks in a "dry landscape" garden, and a mirror reflecting the absence of the daughter who has just left home after getting married. These images exemplified mono no aware as powerfully as the expression on the greatest actor's face.
Science fiction author Ken Liu's short story "Mono no Aware" won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. Inspired by works like the science fiction manga Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō, Liu sought to evoke an "aesthetic primarily oriented towards creating in the reader an empathy towards the inevitable passing of all things", and to acknowledge "the importance of memory and continuity with the past".
One of the most well-known examples of mono no aware in contemporary Japan is the traditional love of cherry blossoms, found throughout Japanese art and perpetuated by the large masses of people that travel annually to view and picnic under cherry trees. The trees are not considered to be of special value in terms of their beauty in relation to other trees, such as apple or pear trees. Cherry tree blossoms are valued because of their transience, normally associated with the fact that the blossoms fall from the tree after only a week or so after first budding. It is the evanescence of the beauty of the cherry blossom that evokes the weary perspective of mono no aware in the viewer.
Media and written works:
- In Search of Lost Time
- Ballade des dames du temps jadis
- Lost in Translation
- Sans Soleil
- Last Life in the Universe
- Samurai Jack
- Girls' Last Tour
Related terms with no direct translation in English:
- Lacrimae rerum
- Memento mori
- Nine Changes
- Ubi sunt
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