Mono no aware

The title of this post is in Japanese.  I say this because you may think, if you happen to be American, that this will be about a person with undiagnosed mono (glandular fever), or perhaps that it will be about how today’s youth are unaware of what existed before stereo sound.  It is about neither of these things.  It is about – put on your best Maori pronunciation (if you have no Japanese) – mono no aware.

At its core is a deep, empathetic appreciation of the ephemeral beauty manifest in nature and human life, and is therefore usually tinged with a hint of sadness….  Literally, “a deep feeling over things”

Keys to the Japanese Heart and Soul

Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book offers countless examples,

In autumn, the evening. The setting sun burnishes the edges of the mountains and the birds fly home. . . . A trembling line of wild geese flies into the distance and disappears.

The scene is beautiful and vivid and/but it is fleeting.

Close to mono no aware is the concept of mujo,

the doctrine that everything that is born must die and that nothing remains unchanged

There is a famous poem from the medieval period in Japan’s  history called Hojiki that exemplifies mujo, and parts of it run like this:

A house and its master

are like dew that gathers

on the morning glory.

Which will be the first to pass?

Sometimes the dew falls away

while the flower stays.

But they will surely

wilt in the morning sun.

Sometimes the flower shrivels

while the dew holds on.

But it will not

outlive the day.

The man who wrote this describes the city of Kyoto in destructive flux, and his retreat into the forests of the mountains to find the heart of things.  It is a work not too dissimilar to Walden.


Recently I have been watching Ozu movies in the middle of the night when I am feeding Rosamund.  It has taken me back to our time in Japan. It’s been seven years since Cathy and I came back from Japan.  Seven years.

About five years ago, I suppose, I thought it would be pretty cool if I could take all of our mementos and photos and bits and pieces from Japan and create an art work out of them.  Somehow I never managed to get around to doing it.  Part of the problem was that I had no idea how to do it, and the other (larger) problem was my ability to interminably put things off.  Watching Ozu late at night, and suffering the stresses of being a new born’s dad again seemed to spark me into action however, and I have spent the last couple of days assembling, and arranging and gluing my “art work” together.  I finished it around lunchtime today and it is sitting now against the wall in our dining room waiting to be hung in the hallway.

Now that I am done with the business of making the thing, I have time to look at it and I find when I look at it that I have mixed feelings.  Those feelings might best be described as mono no aware and mujo.


Each object on there, each photo, each card or cloth has a powerful emotional hold on me and at the moment my dominant feeling when I look at this “picture” is sadness and yearning.

Take something as simple as the repeated frames that show the rusty, red cloth.  The cloth was bought at a little shop on Mido-Suji (the Queen Street of Osaka), next to Nova’s old head office.  We bought a few different things at that shop because it had such nice things.  We bought some Japanese lanterns there, and some prints, and a rather nice bento box.  For years Cathy wrapped her purse in that cloth.  Her purse was rather expensive and we bought it in a Japanese department store for quite a bit of money.  It was a lovely green, leather purse that folded in on itself and clipped shut with silver clasps.  A beautiful object to look at, but also tactile.  Because it was so nice Cathy kept it wrapped in this cloth.

And so I think of the shop where we bought the cloth, and the place we bought the wallet, and the everyday life it saw with us –  the friends we went to bars and isakayas with, the subways and the train tickets, the chou creams we bought at Family Mart.  Memories on top of memories that have a peculiar ache to them: sadness, mainly sadness now, with a little of the original happiness drifting through.

What is this sadness?  An appreciation of the ephemeral beauty in nature and human life; an awareness that everything that is born must die and nothing remains unchanged.


It’s the Ozu I suppose that brought all this on.  Sitting up at night holding Rosamund and watching Ozu movies.  He is my favourite director by such a margin that I simply place him in a different category from other directors.  There is Ozu, and then there are all the other film makers.  I don’t think he was a genius, but I do think that he was a master.  He also happened to work with Setsuko Hara who I could happily watch on screen every day and night for a week and never tire of.

I am going to talk about Ozu some more in a bit, so I will leave him to one side for the moment.

Should I say that I wish I could go back in time to those places that I see in the pictures on the wall?  Back to the karaoke bar, or the cherry blossom viewing picnics and the friends and the laughter?  I can say that this desire exists and doesn’t exist.  Since those moments captured in those objects Cathy and I have gone on to new things, with new people, and we have had the chance, the wonderful chance, to meet our daughters – something neither of us would want to give up for a second.

Life is an accumulation of things I suppose.  Complicated.  A pulling of the heart towards the past and into the present.

2 thoughts on “Mono no aware”

  1. I remember Ozu films from years ago that were shown at the Film Society and at festivals. They had a melancholia that was slightly addictive. A sadness that was not unpleasant but which I felt as a gnawing in the stomach (hunger pains). In some ways those films, to me, were like Fellini films. Romantic sadness of past times and places.

  2. Ozu was able to make the personal universal. We each of us have objects the move us or our families, but mean little to others. There’s something about Ozu…. Why is – and I agree with you – Setsuko Hara a presence whose ambience one always wants to be in? It is not sadness alone: think of the beginning of Early Summer, which does not hint of the conflicting feelings to come. As for “past times and places,” Ozu’s films are contemporary not nostalgic, though indeed for him the present includes the past, and the passing past, and the passing present, and one might say, the passing future.

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