Something that you’re likely to come across while learning about Japanese culture is mono no aware (物の哀れ), a complicated concept and feeling that doesn’t have a direct translation into other languages. In the literal sense, mono no aware means something like “the pathos of things” (pathos itself generally meaning something that evokes pity, sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow) or perhaps something more like “empathy towards things” but in practice, mono no aware is the feeling associated with the awareness of the impermanence of existence and can be applied to specific things as well as the general universal truth that nothing lasts forever. If you’re intrigued by somewhat esoteric aspects of Japanese culture, read on as we further explain mono no aware and its origins and offer some examples of its presence in anime!
Without diving too deep into history, mono no aware first appeared during the Heian period but wasn’t well defined until it was publicized by scholar Motoori Norinaga, one of the most influential members of the Kokugaku academic movement during 18th century Edo period Japan. Norinaga famously wrote that mono no aware was the crucial element of the seminal masterpiece novel The Tale of Genji (and other works) and placed emphasis on how the fleeting nature of things heightened their beauty and impact on the reader while also tinging it with a sort of wistful sense of sadness and nostalgia.
Beauty and Sadness in Transience
With these concepts unified, the idea of mono no aware expanded from literary criticism to become more broadly used across Japan and eventually became part of Japanese cultural understanding as a whole. An iconic and enduring example of mono no aware is the cherry blossom, which has been a point of fascination and love in Japan for centuries, in no small part because their short blooming season perfectly embodies the ephemeral beauty of the concept. Mono no aware has continued to be a part of prominent works of Japanese media and culture such as the films of celebrated director Yasujiro Ozu and Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro.
Mono no Aware in Manga and Anime
Similarly, mono no aware can be found at the center of many manga and anime stories, typically in the broad genre of slice-of-life:
Omoide Poroporo (Only Yesterday)
- Episodes: 1 (film)
- Aired: July 20, 1991
Isao Takahata and Studio Ghilbi’s thoughtful adaptation of Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone’s manga of the same name tells the story of Taeko Okajima, a 27 year old office worker in Tokyo who experiences mono no aware throughout the film when she goes on a trip to visit her brother-in-law’s family in the rural countryside to help with the safflower harvest. Only Yesterday’s brand of mono no aware is particularly heavy on the nostalgic aspect with frequent flashbacks to Taeko’s childhood, and sees the feeling being used by the character as a reaffirmation of herself. While perhaps more overtly positive than other explorations of the concept, Only Yesterday nevertheless has traces of the bittersweetness that make it decidedly mono no aware.
Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou (Girls' Last Tour)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: October 2017 - December 2017
More recently, Girls’ Last Tour explores mono no aware through the lens of Chito and Yuuri, two girls traveling together through the expansive ruins of a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by some unknown war or disaster in a strange tank/motorcycle hybrid vehicle called a Kettenkrad. While their constant search for food and fuel through a lifeless world sounds quite grim, the duo’s persistent ability to continue enjoying the time they have embodies mono no aware’s appreciation, or at least acceptance, of their limited time. The concept in Girls’ Last Tour is amplified by the fact that Chito and Yuuri appear to be some of the last humans alive on Earth. The finality of it all is plainly spelled out throughout and it makes their interactions, no matter how simple, feel all the more weighty, meaningful, and beautiful in distinctly mono no aware fashion.
Kotonoha no Niwa (The Garden of Words)
- Episodes: 1 (film)
- Aired: May 31, 2013
While many of Makoto Shinkai’s films such as Byousoku 5 Centimeter (5 Centimeters Per Second) and Kimi no Na wa. (Your Name.) have aspects of mono no aware, it is perhaps best seen in The Garden of Words. The story revolves around the chance meeting of shoe-making enthusiast high schooler Takao Akizuki and a mysterious young woman named Yukari Yukino under a park pavilion where they take shelter from a storm during Japan’s rainy season. While Takao sketches his designs and Yukari enjoys the curious meal of beer and chocolate the two begin to form an unusual bond over a series of meetings in that same pavilion. But with the end of the rainy season and their own personal problems soon culminating, they will see their relationship put to the test. The beauty of these fleeting moments is very much in the mono no aware spirit.
Without going into exhaustive detail, some other notable works that explore mono no aware include the Aria series, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (Yokohama Shopping Log), Mushishi, and Haibane Renmei.
While it’s perhaps a bit hard to explain, mono no aware is an interesting and pervasive concept in Japanese culture that we hope you can now better understand and appreciate! This article itself is fleeting so we hope you enjoyed the moments you spent reading it. Let us know your own thoughts in the comments section below and be sure to stick around Honey’s for more of all things awesome, slightly arcane facets of cultural heritage and otherwise! Until the end, see ya!