Let’s Get Visual: Mono no Aware

MICHELLE: It’s the last Saturday of the month, and that means it’s time for another Let’s Get Visual column! Joining me as always is MJ, from Manga Bookshelf. This month, we’ve chosen images that convey the feeling of mono no aware, which Wikipedia defines as, “the awareness of impermanence, or the transience of things, and a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing.”

If I’m interpreting that definition correctly, there appears to be a subtle difference between mono no aware and outright nostalgia, where the former is more of-the-moment (Honey and Clover springs to mind here) while the latter would be something like the retrospective narration in Ai Yazawa’s NANA.

What’s your take on it, MJ?

MJ: I actually feel rather unclear myself, so I’m hoping that between you and our generous readers I’ll gain a better understanding via this column. Though I’ve read the Wikipedia entry, along with several other web pages that attempt to explain the concept, I’m not entirely sure I understand the true essence of mono no aware. I’ll do my best, of course, to take a stab at it!

MICHELLE: As will I! And if we do get it wrong, generous readers, please go easy on us!

What images have you chosen to talk about? (Click images to enlarge.)

Blue, Pages 224-end (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)

MJ: Well, since we do focus on visuals here, I chose a series of panels from the end of Kiriko Nananan’s bittersweet yuri romance, Blue, published in English by Fanfare/Ponent Mon. To a great extent, I think the entire manga exemplifies mono no aware, at least as I understand it at this time, as its primary romance seems obviously transient from the beginning. There’s never a sense that its protagonists, Kirishima and Endo, have a long-term future together, so the tone is wistful throughout. Every detail, down to the artist’s stark drawing style, suggests a gentle melancholy, even in the characters’ happiest moments.

As you can see, the story’s final pages are nearly text-free. After exchanging restrained parting words, Kirishima rides off to Tokyo in a train, leaving Endo on the platform, smiling sadly. As the train pulls away, Kirishima turns and leans against the door, finally letting her tears fall, unseen by Endo.

Not only do these panels express the sadness of an (apparently) inevitable parting, but they deliberately display this in the simplest, most beautiful way possible. Nananan’s barely toned artwork accents the slightest movement, giving enormous weight to a single teardrop—even to a single fold in Kirishima’s clothing. This sadness is elegant in every way, down to the strands of black hair tumbling over Kirishima’s fingers in the books’ final frame. It’s gorgeous, truly, and so simply bittersweet.

Though, as I’ve said, I’m not entirely sure I fully understand mono no aware, these panels perfectly illustrates what I think it might be. I hope someone will tell me if I’m wrong or right.

MICHELLE: I think you’ve got it right, because we can tell that Kirishima realizes that this is the last time she is going to see Endo. She still loves her, but their time together is over. It’s a very sad scene, but it’s also a beautiful scene, and because this heartbreaking moment is depicted with such care and such clarity, I think it qualifies as mono no aware.

MJ: I’m relieved to know that you think so!

So what have you chosen to share with us tonight?

Shugo Chara!, Volume 10, Pages 148-149 (Kodansha Comics)

MICHELLE: I’ve chosen a two-page spread from the tenth volume of Peach-Pit’s magical girl series, Shugo Chara!. The series has followed its protagonist, Amu Hinamori, since she was in the fourth grade, and now her final days of sixth grade are drawing nigh. She and her friends are responsible for planning the graduation ceremony and Amu has gone to check out the state of the auditorium.

When she gets there, Amu is stunned by the sight of a room full of empty chairs. It’s silent and still, and its emptiness is only emphasized by the barrel ceiling. The sight reminds her of the many things that have happened at school and with her new friends, times when this room was full of life, but there’s more to it than that. There is still one more occasion where they will all be together—graduation. Things are not quite over for them, this room will once more be peopled by those whom Amu cares about, but still, the knowledge that change is imminent makes Amu wistful somewhat in advance.

Maybe the difference between mono no aware and nostalgia can be summed up as “these days will never come again” versus “those were the days.”

MJ: What a perfect choice for illustrating that point! You’re absolutely right, the wistfulness here is for the present much more than it is for the past. She’s living in the very moment she mourns, struck by the warmth of the present and its imminent loss all at once. What a lovely example, Michelle!

MICHELLE: Thanks! This image was the inspiration for this column, actually. I’ve certainly read other series that employ mono no aware—I loved that aspect of Honey and Clover before I even knew that it had a specific name—but I was struck by how this one spread conveyed the same idea almost completely wordlessly. “Living in the very moment she mourns” is a beautiful way to put it.

MJ: So I suppose it’s up to our readers now to let us know how well we’ve done in our attempt to interpret mono no aware?

MICHELLE: Indeed! And if anyone has images they’d like to share, please feel free! Also, please come back and join us next month for a special Wild Adapter-themed edition of Let’s Get Visual to coincide with the Manga Moveable Feast being hosted at Manga Bookshelf the week of June 19th through 25th!

A Distant Neighborhood 1 by Jiro Taniguchi: A

distant-125Forty-eight-year-old Hiroshi Nakahara is a businessman with a love of alcohol and little time for his family. One day, in 1998, as he is returning home (hungover) from a business trip to Kyoko, he accidentally boards the wrong train and ends up traveling to Kurayoshi, the town in which he grew up and which he hasn’t visited for many years. With some time to kill before the next train to Tokyo, he wanders around, checking out the building that used to be his family’s shop and paying a visit to his mother’s grave. As he’s asking his mother, “Were you happy?” something mysterious occurs and Hiroshi wakes to discover that he’s back in his fourteen-year-old body but with all of his adult knowledge and wisdom intact. Not only that, the family shop and neighborhood has returned to its previous condition, his deceased mother and grandmother are alive, and the date is still four months before his father’s sudden disappearance.

At first, Hiroshi acts merely as an observer, attending classes and making mental notes on the eventual fates of some of the friends he encounters there. In time, he begins to feel a zeal for learning and exercise that he’d not possessed the first time through his adolescence and relishes a feeling of liberation from his various adult responsibilities. His accomplishments in sports and academics attract the notice of Tomoko Nagase, the prettiest girl in his class, another difference from his past. Nagase has big dreams and it’s in deciding to help her that Hiroshi begins to take a more active part in this second chance he’s been given, resolving too to prevent his father’s disappearance.

Hiroshi doesn’t have an easy time passing as a fourteen-year-old. Aside from his drastic scholastic improvement, he’s singularly unimpressed by some things adolescent boys tend to be keen on (like nudie mags and cigarettes), occasionally lets slip details that he shouldn’t yet know, and demonstrates far more perceptiveness about the adults in his family than he originally did, as we can see in flashbacks of his oblivious past self. His emotional reaction to being scolded by his mother again is very touching and there’s also a particularly nice scene toward the end of the volume where Hiroshi is given the opportunity to ask his grandmother how his parents met, information he’d evidently never thought to inquire about before.

It also seems as if Hiroshi’s experiences reliving his past are going to help him become a better person in the future. When Nagase confesses her feelings for him, he accepts, but it’s abundantly clear that he sees her as a daughter and is still thinking only of how he might help her. After their first date, during which they see a movie involving Men Having Grand Adventures, he insists that women can do the same, and reassures her that a time will soon come when women can be “wonderfully independent.” This is in marked contrast to his treatment of his real daughters; in one of the odd moments where Hiroshi experiences a disembodied glimpse of what’s going on in 1998, his sees his wife and eldest daughter, Ayako, discussing a boyfriend he knows nothing about and declaring that Hiroshi will never consent to let Ayako move into an apartment. “Obviously! A single girl your age can’t go living alone!” he thinks.

Jiro Taniguchi’s art is never anything short of gorgeous, and A Distant Neighborhood is like his other works in that it offers plenty of beautiful landscapes, detailed illustrations of buildings, and a middle-aged protagonist (at least at first). Facial expressions can be a little stiff at times, but I felt that emotion was better conveyed here than in The Quest for the Missing Girl.

The overall feel of the story is initially similar to The Walking Man in that Hiroshi is merely taking in his surroundings without interacting much. Eventually, though, it becomes the most emotional work by Taniguchi that I’ve read. It’s also seriously engrossing; I could’ve read another 200 pages easily.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

The Quest for the Missing Girl by Jiro Taniguchi: A-

When asked whether I’d like to contribute a guest post to Comics Should Be Good, I said, “I’d be delighted!” In fact, I’m actually going to be doing an occasional feature for them called Blue Moon Reviews, so please check it out! Here’s my first review for them!

Thanks again to Danielle Leigh and Brian Cronin for the opportunity.

The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi: A

From the inner flap:
Who takes the time these days to climb a tree in bare feet to rescue a child’s toy? To stop and observe the birds? To play in the puddles after a storm? To go down to the sea to put back a shell? The Walking Man does as he strolls at random through urban Japan—often silent, often alone—with his vivid dreams that let time stand still.

There are eighteen walks in this collection and some similarities among them. Many feature encounters with the elements and with neighborhood animals, for example, a few are entirely wordless, and some involve running into the same people multiple times in the course of a stroll.

The art is the real star of The Walking Man, though by his actions, the nameless protagonist proves himself to be gentle, thoughtful, and kind. One of my favorite panels occurs in “Around Town,” when the walking man is looking at a fairly busy part of town. The page, and his view, is suddenly interrupted by a narrow panel of a train whizzing past. Sometimes, as in “A Nice Hot Bath,” you’ll get chapters with pouring rain in practically every panel. I also love “A Shattered Landscape,” in which the walking man’s glasses get broken, and Taniguchi draws fractured images (if he has them on) or blurry ones (if he takes them off). The best part about that chapter is when his wife also tries them on at the end.

Taniguchi also excels at visual storytelling. The Walking Man is probably the best example you could find on showing the readers something rather than simply telling them. Early on, the family dog, Snowy, who is the only creature whose name is revealed, unearths a seashell in the garden. Later, in the story called “Down to the Sea Again,” the walking man and his wife take a trip out to the coast to return the shell. By the way the wife walks and explores, and how she hops up on a concrete barrier to walk along, one can see how well-suited she and her husband are. In the chapter “Lost and Found,” Taniguchi uses clues like a panting dog and the removal of the walking man’s coat to indicate how hot it is outside.

The stories cited above are among my favorites, but I also quite like “The Long Trail,” in which the walking man and an older fellow keep passing each other on a trail, but end up walking together by the end. Really, there are no bad parts, though I didn’t like the final chapter, entitled “Ten Years Later,” as much as the others. It’s the only one to feature narration of the walking man’s thoughts as he walks, and I found I liked it better without.

The Walking Man is sure to appeal to anyone who has ever enjoyed taking life slowly and simply admiring their surroundings.

Blue by Kiriko Nananan: A

From the inside flap:
Kayako Kirishima and Masami Endo are about to discover that their recent friendship is turning into obsessive love. But when today’s hopes and yesterday’s dreams meet tomorrow’s problems, will they be able to continue?

Blue is a one-volume title in nice binding and printed on glossy paper that happens to cost $24. I read it in the store today, but it should carry some weight to say that, even though I now technically don’t need to buy it, I intend to shell out for it someday just the same.

Just yesterday I began to watch the UK TV series Sugar Rush, and it’s interesting to note a number of similarities here. Masami would be in the Sugar role, a girl who’s already been in some trouble and is a little notorious because of it. Kayako is pretty quiet, but her actions are always believable and her motivations always well-portrayed. I shan’t give the plot away, but I thought that the events unfolded realistically. I was especially glad that there was no fan-service. This is not shoujo-ai for the drooly fanboy contingent.

The one critique I could make is that the art style makes it hard to tell what’s happening in a few panels, and it took a bit of time to get used to who was who, since some of the characters look fairly similar. I liked that she would shift the vantage point on a scene around and show it from different angels. It livened up the panels in a subtle way, and served the story without becoming a distracting display of skill for its own sake.