Mono No Aware as Mise-en-scene

Allison Leonard


Long before the arrival of cinema in the 1890s, the idea of mono no aware manifested in Japanese literature, music, and art, mostly due to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the 12th century. It wasn’t until the literary criticism of Motoori Norinaga that the concept was given a name. Norinaga is most famous for his extensive annotations of The Tale of Genji, a classical Heian period novel about the romantic encounters of a handsome prince, and the Man’yōshū, the world’s oldest collection of Japanese poetry. Norinaga used the term mono no aware to describe the feelings of sadness and sensitivity experienced by the reader upon studying these works. He wrote that Genji and Man’yōshū “are expressions of mono no aware, and they transmit mono no aware to the reader. They have no other purpose.”[1]

Norinaga associated the idea of mono no aware with sakura, the light pink blossoms of the cherry trees that are indigenous to Japan. Norinaga wrote, “If I were asked to explain the Japanese spirit, I would say it is wild cherry blossoms glowing in the morning sun!”[2] The flowers bloom en masse only after a long, cold winter, showcasing their magnificent, collective beauty for only a very short period of time before they flutter gently from the trees and quickly die. Thus, the flowers have become an “enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life” in Japanese culture, appreciated for their resplendent and short-lived beauty, and inspiring countless paintings, poems, and songs.[3]

In contemporary Japan, many artists have found new media for creating works of art to express this concept more thoroughly. Manga (Japanese comic book) artists such as Hitoshi Ashinano, Kozue Amano, and Kaoru Mori are known for their mono no aware-style storytelling, while popular anime films such as Only Yesterday and Mai Mai Miracle display mono no aware by “emphasizing the passing of time in gentle notes and presenting the main plot against a parallel one from the past.”[4] Mono no aware can also be found in the realm of Japanese film, given new life by directors of the past and present. I will broadly survey here three of those directors – Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Hirokazu Kore-eda – whose films use aspects of mise-en-scene to convey a sense of mono no aware.


Yasujiro Ozu – Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story (1953) focuses on an individual family, and deals with issues such as marriage, generational conflict, disappointment, and death. The plot is simple, without much action occuring on-screen, but Ozu wants the audience to pay attention to his characters, and the complex relationships they have with each other. Ozu uses many cinematic techniques, such as ellipses, “pillow shots,” and “tatami mat shots,” to create a film that not only looks like a visual poem or a still photo, but also conveys the mono no aware aesthetic using the surface of mise-en-scene to convey deeper philosophical ideals.

Tokyo Story starts with opening credits over an image of a basic piece of linen cloth. The very first few shots establish the location and the tone of the film. We see a large, stone monument near a river (with boats passing by, which is a recurring Ozu motif), children walking to school, and a shot containing the mountainside, the river, and the rooftops of houses, with a train cutting through the action. To create symmetry, the film ends in nearly the same way as it began – with a shot of the same stone monument, another boat passing by, and the Japanese kanji for “The End” over the linen cloth. These images are known as “pillow shots.” The term comes from a significant component of Japanese waka poetry called makura kotoba, or “pillow words,” which are small words linked up with other words or phrases in the poem to “color” it and give it more depth.[5] ”Pillow shots” are still images of mundane, everyday life. The functional purpose of these images is to show where the next scene will take place, but their artistic purpose is to provide the audience with moments of personal reflection, instead of letting them forget about what happened when one scene cuts and the next scene begins.

Another original technique attributed to Ozu is called the “tatami mat shot.” To execute this, Ozu sets up the camera at a low height, approximately 2.5 feet off the ground, which places the viewer at about the eye level of a person sitting in the Japanese seiza (kneeling) position on a tatami mat. This deliberate framing device puts the audience in the room with the characters and creates a shallow, two-dimensional depth of field. Ozu also utilizes medium close-up shots of each person during a conversation and, according to David Bordwell, “refuses to cut away from a speaking character; it’s as if every person has the right to be heard in full.”[6]

Both of these shot techniques permit the viewer the maximum amount of closeness and empathy to the film’s characters. Robert Davis writes that this mise-en-scene set-up is designed to “evoke the feeling you’d have if you walked into another family’s gathering, and if you pay attention long enough, you’ll figure out who is married to whom, whose kid is whose, and what historical events are still important, because your family probably isn’t all that different.”[7]

Involving the audience intimately into the lives of Ozu’s characters gives the audience the ability to feel what the characters feel, and understand the deeper meaning behind the characters’ words. For example, the grandfather Shukichi endures tremendous heartache and disappointment throughout the course of the film, yet he is always seen smiling and makes seemingly simple comments about the weather to mask the pain he is hiding inside. Ozu’s shots and camera placement convey mono no aware by allowing the audience to feel sorrow for his characters and contemplate their own lives through their “relationships” with the characters.

Finally, Ozu makes use of ellipses – events that are mentioned, but never shown – to complete the mono no aware effect. For example, in Tokyo Story, there is a conversation between the eldest sister, Shige, and the eldest brother, Koichi, about sending their parents to a hot spring resort in Atami for a few days. The next scene shows a beautiful pillow shot of the water, followed by the old couple sitting in a room drinking tea. The actual trip to Atami is never shown. Ozu employs this selective method of storytelling to focus more on the overlooked happenings that he thinks are important to show – routine scenes of people working, going to school, or getting dressed – instead of scenes depicting weddings or trips to a vacation destination. He finds beauty in the simplicity and banality of everyday tasks, because these are the “events” that constitute the bulk of human lives. Ozu captures this beauty on screen in order to caution the viewers about letting their short lives pass them by through ignoring these little moments.

Experiencing a film like Tokyo Story is akin to experiencing a popular Japanese custom called hanami, or flower-viewing. It is an event that takes place during the springtime, when the sakura blossoms explode onto the trees and then fall gently to the ground in huge waves. People spread out black tarps on the ground to catch the blooms, and sit below the trees with their friends and families, drink sake, and enjoy life together while also lightly mourning the quick deaths of the beautiful flowers. Much like the hanami, Ozu’s film recognizes the brevity of time. Tokyo Story’s mise-en-scene links the material beauty of nature and family life with the spiritual awareness of loss, suffering, and the imminent passage of time.


Kenji Mizoguchi – Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) tells the story of two children unwillingly sold into slavery and separated from their mother, conveying the perilous hardships they encounter before justice can be served. The subject matter and sorrow in this film is a bit heavier than in Ozu’s film, but it nonetheless offers a visual embodiment of mono no aware. His use of the stable camera, frequent scenes of natural landscapes, and the rare crane shots all work together to create a unique juxtaposition of serenity and sadness.

The film opens with an image of some round, granite monuments embedded in the grass, with a small prologue written over it. The circular shapes, topped with smaller stones in the center of each monument, resemble great stone breasts pushing out of the earth, as if to symbolize Mother Nature’s ever-present existence despite the passage of time. The shot that follows the credits depicts a gorgeous scene of a forest interior, with a small creek cutting the frame diagonally. The audience then sees a small boy appear in the top left-center of the frame, skipping ahead of his trailing family as he makes his way down the diagonal path of the creek, heading toward the bottom-right corner. Roger Ebert points out that, in composing the mise-en-scene, Mizoguchi “closely observes the compositional rules of classic cinema. Movement to left suggests backward in time, to the right, forward. Diagonals move in the direction of their sharpest angle. Upward movement is hopeful, downward ominous. By moving from upper left to lower right, they are heading towards an unpromising future.”[8] Mizoguchi is precise with framing his shots, illustrating the mono no aware aesthetic by painting a visually appealing picture with subtle tragic details, such as the boy’s small size among the large trees, and his descent into darkness.

Throughout this film, Mizoguchi is always careful to note the direction of the characters, but what is particularly important to observe is how he chooses not to move his camera during these scenes. The camera’s lack of movement enables a calm reflection upon viewing the film, so that the beautiful scenery, the shot composition, and the journeys of the characters in peril may be truly noticed. Most of all, the still camera expresses a desire to capture life in motion without following its direction, representing the transience of individual lives and their respective roles as parts of a world greater than they are.

Along with his fixed camera, Mizoguchi conveys this large, ever-constant universe by placing his characters within the wide spaces of nature. He puts them in lush forests, in grassy fields, and especially near large water bodies such as lakes or rivers. Water is an important motif for Mizoguchi, as it represents both the gentleness and cruelty of life – it nurtures his characters, but at the same time, it has the size and power to swallow them whole. In this film, water plays an important role – it is the barrier that separates the mother from her children, and it is the medium used by one of the characters to commit suicide. Mizoguchi conveys the Buddhist roots of mono no aware by placing humans and their transient lives on a far smaller scale than that of the natural world and the cosmic universe in which they live. For this reason, Mizoguchi rarely uses close-ups of actors’ faces. Unlike Ozu, who valued individual characters in his own way, and recognized their importance by fixing his camera on them when they spoke, Mizoguchi places his camera at a distance from the actors, giving them only full-body or medium shots most of the time. Nevertheless, his use of proxemics manages to elicit sympathy, particularly for the children in Sansho and for any of the main female characters in his other films, by showing that a single person’s life, no matter how tragic, always succumbs to the passage of time, and the continued existence of the world.

Finally, Mizoguchi uses crane shots to mark significant moments that usually occur at the end of his films. In Sansho, the audience witnesses a heartbreaking reunion between the mother and her grown son, after more than ten long years of separation. After the blind mother finally recognizes her son, they embrace on a beach underneath a dilapidated shelter. The camera frames the forlorn family for only a brief moment, then pans away from them and rises higher into the air to show off the wide scale of the beach, the water, and a man gathering seaweed, now looking rather small. He uses variations of this panning/raising of the camera at the end of his other films, catching the main characters at an emotional time or a moment of repose, then drawing away from them to focus on the environment. It seems unusual that Mizoguchi would abandon his characters during crucial moments when they appear to be suffering or in need, but the technique illustrates the fact that one human life comprises a small molecule within a much greater and ever-changing universe.


Hirokazu Kore-eda – Still Walking

Still Walking (2008) is a quiet, slice-of-life comedic drama centered on a family who gets together every year to commemorate the death of the eldest son. It tells a story with no linear plot, goal, or objective, there are no clear-cut protagonists or antagonists, and the problems that surface are not resolved by the film’s end. Like Tokyo Story and Sansho the Bailiff, Still Walking opens with a simple, organic image – raw vegetables being peeled and prepared for a meal. The film’s title appears over a picturesque shot of mountains, water, and houses, with a train slicing through the frame, in a nod to Ozu. The film ends with another image of the same seaside mountain village, using a rising crane shot to cut away from the characters, as a nod to Mizoguchi. Throughout the film, Kore-eda uses Mizoguchi’s distant camera and several shots of the characters composed within natural landscapes, as well as Ozu’s ellipses and pillow shots.

In Still Walking, most of the “action” and “story” occurs within the family dialogue, so it is crucial to pay attention to what the characters say. Kore-eda uses longer shots in conversation scenes, getting everyone in the frame, so the audience can see the characters interacting with each other as well as talking. Kore-eda uses Ozu’s medium close-up shots as well, but he favors them for reaction shots of a specific character becoming upset or uncomfortable by the actions and words of someone else. He chooses to use this shot to display someone’s right to feel instead of their right to speak. Kore-eda also makes use of the ellipsis method, but he uses it in an entirely different way. Since the film occurs during a 24-hour span, there are relatively few actual events that happen within the time and space of the film. Therefore, most of the ellipses in this film – the events that are mentioned, but never shown – are the memories and past conflicts of the family that arise through conversations. These memories are all overshadowed by the one major, overhanging ellipsis that supersedes them all – the eldest son’s death. This event is central to the film, and its haunting absence serves to maximize its importance. There is no break-up in the action of the film, but there are many events pertinent to the film that the audience doesn’t see on camera, because they took place many years ago.

Kore-eda’s use of symbols is essential to giving mono no aware particular importance, promoting personal reflection on the images rather than dramatic renditions of experience. During a pivotal scene in which the grandmother sadly remembers the day of her son’s death through a monologue, she talks about how he left his freshly polished shoes at the door, went out, and never came home. By choosing not to show the son’s death on-screen, and by poetically rendering a single, solemn image – an empty pair of shoes – as a reminder of his permanent departure from the world, Kore-eda perfectly captures the essence of mono no aware. The mental image of the son’s shoes replaces the potential melodrama of depicting his death, and allows the audience some time to contemplate this tragic event instead of forcing them to live through it. These gentle moments of meditation are conjoined with other significant symbols in the film as well. In a smaller scene, a group of children pluck a sprig of a light pink flower, called a crape myrtle, out of a tree and gleefully bring it home to their parents. This flower bears a resemblance to a sakura blossom. The flower is later seen in a nighttime shot, dying in a glass of water while light laughter from the family is heard in the background.

Another example of mono no aware begins when the grandmother notices a yellow butterfly after the family goes to visit her son’s grave, and ends when she chases the same butterfly[9] inside of the house at night, thinking it to be the soul[10] of her dead son. The butterfly serves as a visual motif, not only for its connection to Japanese folk beliefs, but also because it embodies mono no aware; it is beautiful, delicate, fleeting, temporary, and short-lived. The eventual release of the butterfly invokes a light sadness as it disappears into the darkness, carrying the dead son’s soul and attached memories away with it.


[1] Museum of Motori Norinaga. “Motori Norinaga.” Norinaga World. Spring 2001. Accessed May 28, 2013.

[2] Hoffman, Michael. “Sakura: Soul of Japan.” The Japan Times, March 25, 2012. Accessed May 28, 2013.

[3] Khoon, Choy Lee. Japan – Between Myth & Reality. Singapore: World Scientific, 1995.

[4] Liu, Ken. “Q/A With Ken Liu.” Interview by Nick Mamatas. Haika Soru. April 3, 2013. Accessed May 28, 2013.

[5] McAuley, Thomas. “Makura Kotoba.” Waka for Japan. Spring 2001. Accessed May 28, 2013.

[6] Bordwell, David. “Tokyo Story.” The Criterion Collection. October 27, 2003. Accessed May 28, 2013.

[7] Davis, Robert. “Tokyo Story.” Paste, April 1, 2004. Accessed May 28, 2013.

[8] Ebert, Roger. “Sansho the Bailiff.” October 20, 2007. Accessed May 28, 2013.

[9] The Japanese culture has various myths about butterflies, but it used to be a commonly held belief that a butterfly contained a person’s soul. (Hearn, Lafcadio. Kwaidan: Stories & Studies of Strange Things. New York: Dover Publications, 1968).

[10] The Greek word “psyche” translates to “soul” or “butterfly.”