“The poetry of Yamato has one heart as seed and myriad words as leaves. This
kokoro is the one that knows mono no aware.” (In preface of Kokinshū, see note 1).
An Introduction for springtime.
The Sakura trees are blossoming, the casket of nihonshu has been broken, the time to enjoy Ohanami with friends, lovers, and/or family has come. As I enjoyed this year’s Ohanami, I was surprised when I started to reminiscence a scene of a cinematographical narrative I have reviewed some months ago.
The movie in question was Umimachi diary and the scene, as shown above as banner, was the springtime bicycle scene. Apart from the apparent connection of springtime, one might wonder why I want to revisit this narrative. The main reason is to elucidate the signifier “mono no aware” I introduced in the conclusion and to “reinterpret” some of my writings on this fantastic movie.
Another reason why I felt the need to elucidate this signifier is because “Mono no aware” is quite often used without truly understanding what it denotes. It might be fashionable to throw such a signifier into a casual conversation and leaving correspondents somewhat dumb-founded and impressed, but, in the end, a lack of understanding the signifiers one explicitly uses is nothing other than a case of intellectual unfairness.
Mono no aware and to know Mono no aware [物のあわれ、物のあわれを知る].
So what is Mono no aware? How should we understand it? As Mono no aware is an aesthetic category, it obviously concerns the experience of beauty, but how should we understand this experience of beauty?
Mono no aware is often translated as a “sensitivity to things” or “moving power of things”. This two translation are very different, because while the former seems to point to a sensitivity of the subject for “things”, the latter seems to imply a inherent power of “things” to move the subject. Furthermore the signifier “Mono”, which is translated as “things”, is a signifier, with a vague signified.
To find a better understanding of Mono no aware, we’ll approach the signifier through Motoori Norinaga’s theory of “to know Mono no aware”. Norinaga will connect this “to know mono no aware” with the possession of a feeling kokoro (heart), a feeling kokoro which is function of the subject: “Whenever one performs an action, each time one comes in contact with this action, one’s heart is moved and unable to stand still. To be moved means to have a variety of sentiments, such as to be happy at one moment and sad at the next; to be angry, or joyful, or delightedly interested, or terribly worried, or full of love and hatred, or longing for someone, or being disgusted. In other words, the heart is moved because it knows mono no aware” (Heisig et al., 2011, p 1176 – 1177, my own italics).
So for Norinaga to know mono no aware is “to discern the nature of happiness or sadness while experiencing the world” and to not know mono no aware is not having a feeling in our hearts, because we don’t understand the nature of things (Heisig et al., 2011, p 1177). So Mono no aware concerns the “nature of things”. It is only by having knowledge of the “nature of things” that the heart can be moved by and how subjects how to be moved by the nature of those things.
So even though we now have two signifiers with a vague signified, “nature” and “things”, we nevertheless know that to know mono no aware implies an aesthetic perception of reality or, more specific, of the nature of things, a sensitivity to mono no aware as concerning the nature of things. Norinaga will define this to know mono no aware as “to be stirred by external things” (Heisig et al., 2011, p 1177).
In our opinion, there can only be mono no aware, as moving power of things, if there is a subject able to know something about the nature of things. In other words, “things” have no inherent “moving power”; There can only be mono no aware in language, because it’s only in language that subjects are able to attribute the sensation of being stirred to the nature of the things, to the things “they way they are”, which might be a good synonym for nature in this case. Nevertheless, as implied, the “the way they are” of things depends on the cultural context.
To give some concrete hints concerning the “‘things‘ of aware”, we’ll introduce some of Norinaga’s writing: “I would say that to know mono no aware is to be stirred by the view of the wonderful cherry blossoms, or of the bright moon while facing it. One’s feelings are stirred up because he understands, deep in his heart, the moving power of the moon and of the blossoms [this understanding, in our view, is function of the cultural context]. (…) To know mono no aware is to discern the power and essence, not just of the moon and the cherry blossoms, but of every single thing existing in this world, and to be stirred by each of them, so as to rejoice at happy occasions, to be charmed by what one should consider charming, to be saddened by sad occurrences, and to love what should be loved. Therefore, people who know mono no aware have a heart” (Marra, M., 2007, p.184-185, my own italics).
In other words, based on Norinaga and Japanese poetry, we can say that the aesthetic perception of or the being stirred by the nature of things can concerns the nature of “any-thing in nature” and that an important function of poetry concerns the communication of mono no aware to others. Furthermore Japanese poetry shows us one important aspect of the nature of things: the ephemeral.
To conclude this part, some closing words on the signifier aware, which might further benefit our understanding of mono no aware. Aware is often related only to “feelings of sadness”, which is illustrated by the fact it’s written with the kanji 哀 for sorrow. But Norinaga will underline time and time again that the meaning of aware cannot be limited to sorrow and that sadness is only one the the feelings included in the signifier. Aware should be understood as “the stirring up of the heart by all kinds of human feelings” (Marra, M., 2007, p. 184). Mono no aware is, and maybe this is the best definition we can give, nothing other than “what is felt deeply inside” in relation to the nature of things, the ephemeral thereof in some cases, as framed by the cultural context.
Conclusion: Mono no aware and umimachi diary
This long elaboration of mono no aware should enable us to reformulate some aspects of my review of Umimachi diary: three quotes from that review:
- “In essence Umimachi diary concerns nothing other than the beauty of transiency, a transiency that’s ever framed against a background of permanency.”
- “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the narrative evokes a feeling of tender nostalgia, a feeling underpinned by the appreciation of the beauty of transiency.”
- “At every important moment in the narrative the music is there to underline the beauty of the moment itself and, in the same vein, its transient nature.”
These quotes underline that Umimachi diary is successful in communicating mono no aware and enables the viewer, by being deeply moved by narrative, to relate to mono no aware, as framed through the cinematography. As such one might view Umimachi diary as nothing other than poetry and Kore-eda as the cinematographical poet. And maybe this is the best compliment one can give to this amazing narrative.
Nevertheless, if we want to further elucidate the relation between Japanese cinematography and mono no aware our next stop should be the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
Note 1: Kokin Wakashū (古今和歌集) or Kokinshū is an early Imperial anthology of the waka form of Japanese poetry, dating from the Heian period. It was conceived of by Emperor Uda (r. 887–897) and published as ordered by his son Emperor Daigo (r. 897–930).
Michael F. Marra (2007). The Poetics of Motoori
Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Heisig, J. W., Kasulis, T. P., & Maraldo, J. C. (2011). Japanese philosophy: A sourcebook. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. p. 1176-1177