Why Americans Want Happy Endings

3 Apr

I’ve recently been watching the films of Yasujiro Ozu, titles such as Early Summer and An Autumn Afternoon.  Although not as popular in the West as his Japanese contemporary Akira Kurosawa, Ozu was highly acclaimed and a box office success in Japan until his death in 1963.

Ozu had many strengths including a mastery of composition and narrative structure; however, what I appreciate most is his ability to capture mono no aware.  Although a literal translation in English does not exist, mono no aware is a Japanese concept adeptly translated by author Donald Richie.  During his audio commentary on Ozu’s film,  Early Summer (The Criterion Collection, 2004), Richie translates mono no aware as “…putting up with things and celebrating the fact that you are putting up with things.”  It’s when you find a rightness with the way things are, a place of absolution, even satisfaction in seeing things continuing as they must.

Mono no aware is invariably sad because our aspirations often want something different.  On the other hand, if we value how things must be, then it’s a good thing.  Mono no aware becomes a resigned form of sadness with a touch of happiness.

Us Americans like to feel happy after watching a movie, not sad – ever hear, “Nobody likes a sad ending”?  As a result, most American movies have happy endings without mono no aware, without a touch of sadness.  This not only contributes to superficial escapist fair, but, more importantly, it robs audiences from a deeper encounter with life.  Mono no aware is much more complex than mere sadness; there is infinite beauty within it.  Everything comes at a cost and, even if painful, that very cost ought to be celebrated as an integral part of life.

Mono no aware exists all around us.  A child celebrating her 8th birthday is a time of joy, but sadness as well due to her inevitable loss of childhood.  A wedding is a time of celebration, but also of loss to the bride and bridegroom’s parents.  Even seemingly mundane things like sharing a meal with friends or a stunning cloud formation must come to an end.

Mono no aware is a beautiful part of life that needs to be included in American films more often, even those with happy endings.  In my favorite Ozu film, which centers around a daughter’s marriage, the wedding itself is not shown at the end, rather, we are left with her lonely father in his empty house – a most beautiful and satisfying ending, indeed!


10 Responses to “Why Americans Want Happy Endings”

  1. Ralph Winter April 25, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    very good stuff Chris -keep it coming.

  2. Vividhunter April 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Great post. So will you add a touch of mono no aware to your creative endeavors?

    • Christopher April 4, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Absolutely!!! :) I’m not saying that Mono No Aware is “necessary,” of course, though my post may come across that way; however, I’m simply saying that it can truly add much greater value to American films in general, especially studio films.

      Thank you for the comment and be assured that MNA is definitely something I strive to capture, though it does seem a bit elusive creatively…

  3. Rusty April 3, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    good thoughts. good stuff to chew on and think about. As my children turn 9 and 12 I am all to aware of the joy and pain of seeing them grow. Oh to be able to lift them up so easily and hold them tightly in my arms, barely feeling their weight as they put their head on my shoulder and breath in my ear as they sleep so soundly.

    • Christopher April 4, 2012 at 11:24 am #

      Rusty, just yesterday, I pulled my son up out of his crib and fest the sadness; I literally thought, “Oh my…he’s going to grow up and never be this little boy again.”

      I so understand what you mean…

  4. onfoodandfilm April 3, 2012 at 8:49 am #

    I need to check out his films as well. Funny, this is a bit of a companion piece to the blog I just posted on “Chinatown”… personally, I love brutal endings, IF they are earned. At the same time, if someone, say, works in a coal mine all week, when they go out on a friday night, it is understandable they want to check out and be entertained. Thus, “The Hangover” over “Blue Valentine” et all. It’s tough. What is remarkable to me, given that understandable truth, is when a movie that is challenging or has a brutal ending still is a success.

    • Christopher April 4, 2012 at 11:25 am #

      Oh, man, Tom. You’re totally right. In fact, it was your post in conjunction to watching Ozu films which inspired me to write this post! :) I began thinking about Chinatown and why we don’t see more endings like that, even though it is considered a major classic! You’d think that would encourage more so…

      Thanks for the inspiration…

  5. Amir Teymouri April 3, 2012 at 6:59 am #

    Very interesting Chris. Never seen any Ozu films before, but now am intrigued.

    I think most of us use movies, yes to be entertained, but also as an escape from our daily lives. Maybe this why “happy endings” have a corner of the market, as sadly most are broken down from the daily routine, and turn to Hollywood to make them forget…even for just a few hours.
    Its why I love movies like Unforgiven, where you walk out not necessarily giving your buddy a high-five, instead one does something better and thinks.
    Good stuff as usual Chris!

    • Christopher April 4, 2012 at 11:27 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Amir. Unfortunately my posts come across as a bit all encompassing at times. Of course, there is a place for everything, as you put it. Believe me, I don’t want sadness all the time, even if beautiful! LOL

      It would be great though, as you recognize, if we had a bit more of it…

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