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!