Posts Tagged ‘mono no aware’

Mono No Red Dwarf

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

The Japanese have a concept known as mono no aware; I’ve always translated this to mean, “sensitivity to things,” but I like the Wikipedia translation [1] better: “An empathy towards things.” I’ve spent the last five years trying to explain this concept, or at least my understanding of it to anyone who will suffer my interest in the subject. And though I don’t believe that I’ve ever become particularly good at it, I will attempt to discuss the matter here:

My most summary explanation of mono no aware as a story-telling technique is: It is the function of emotion as a near tangible element of a story’s narrative, often expressed by the over arching context of the physical space within which the story takes place. As one might map a character’s development over the course of a story, in stories that use mono no aware, a similar map might be plotted for a specific emotion.

Mono no aware, in my opinion, is not exclusive to Japanese culture and Japanese story-telling. James Joyce’s, “The Dead,” [2] from Dubliners, and “Araby” and “An Encounter” are all English-language stories that exemplify the use of mono no aware. This, from the final paragraph from “The Dead,” is illustrative of the technique:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

This passage offers and introspective look at Gabriel’s inward development as expressed by his surroundings and the context of his surroundings. The thick, soft, dampening effect of the snow is a literal whiteout over his past and an indicator of his future.

Where this technique shines the most for me is when it is used in comedy. For example:

Rimmer and Mr. Flibble in Red Dwarf's, Quarantine

Rimmer and Mr. Flibble in Red Dwarf's, Quarantine

Red Dwarf is a British sitcom about a man named Lister, his roommate, Rimmer (a hologram), and Cat (a Felis Sapien). Red Dwarf is set 3-million years in the future and 3-million years away from Earth.

Lister is the last living man on the mining vessel, Red Dwarf. He was in protective stasis when a nuclear accident killed the rest of the ship’s crew. As a precaution, the ship’s computer sent the ship into deep space to ensure that no-others would be exposed to the deadly radiation, while Lister was held in stasis until it was safe to release him. What this means is: Lister is probably the last living human being. Everyone and everything that he has ever know is probably gone. And even if some semblance of the world that he once knew still existed, it would take him 3-million years to get back.

Everything about that setting is tragic. There is something deeply sad about the scene from the pilot episode, “The End,” in which Lister is released from stasis to find that everyone he knew, all of his friends and peers, every-living thing is dead.

LISTER: Where is everybody, Hol?
HOLLY
(The Ship’s Computer): They’re dead, Dave.
LISTER:
Who is?
HOLLY:
Everybody, Dave.
LISTER:
What, Captain Hollister?
HOLLY:
Everybody’s dead, Dave.
LISTER:
What, Todhunter?
HOLLY:
Everybody’s dead, Dave.
LISTER:
What, Selby?
HOLLY:
They’re all dead.  Everybody’s dead, Dave.
LISTER:
Petersen isn’t, is he?
HOLLY:
Everybody is dead, Dave.
LISTER:
Not Chen?
HOLLY:
Gordon Bennett!  Yes!  Chen, everybody.  Everybody’s dead, Dave.
LISTER:
Rimmer?
HOLLY:
He’s dead, Dave.  Everybody’s dead.  Everybody is dead, Dave!
LISTER:
Wait.  Are you trying to tell me everybody’s dead?

It is deeply sad and memorably funny and it’s an example of mono no aware. The desparation of the setting serves to reinforce Lister’s development as a character, while acting as a foil for the audience to heighten the humor and reinforce the humanity of this rediculous character in a rediculous setting.