Books / Reviews

Making the time to find mono no aware

by Jeff Kingston

Detached and contemplative,”Oh!” draws the reader into a mesmerizing journey of discovery while also exploring contemporary Japanese pathologies along the way. This philosophical mystery gives us leads on understanding sadness, loss, family ties, identity and suicide. It is also a search for clues about what connects and motivates people, one that overlaps with the protagonist’s own search for roots and attempts to break out of his shell.

OH!: A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda. Seattle: Chin Music Press, 310 pp., 2009, $22.50 (cloth)

Zack Hara, an emotionally numb and alienated technical writer, suddenly decides to bolt Los Angeles and visit Japan, his ancestral home. Working illegally as an English conversation teacher in Numazu, Zack seems to exchange one rut for another. Zack, however, confides his empty emotional life to a local professor who prescribes tasks aimed at unlocking his sense of mono no aware (the pathos of things), an archaic term analyzed extensively throughout the text.

Indeed, the search for mono no aware and its meaning is an engaging leitmotif in “Oh!” For me, it embodies a sudden sense of wistful melancholy stirred by an intuition of impending loss, but here one discovers dozens of definitions and situations that evoke a sudden realization foreshadowed in the title. The text is framed by several stand-alone snippets of learned commentary on mono no aware that Shimoda presents as “exhibits,” all referenced at the end of the book for the curious researcher.

In searching for mono no aware Zack quickly learns that it has little place in contemporary Japan. These days, his girlfriend says, “No one has time for mono no aware anymore.” Most of the people we meet seem incurious and mindful of very little, merely going with the flow. Everyone except the underground poets he meets.

We follow Zack to the town where he thinks his grandfather is from and share his discovery that everything is not as it seems in the family tree. From there Zack turns his detective skills to suicides, visiting Aokigahara forest where many occur, and tracking down members of a suicide club. Ironically, in the midst of this obsessive investigation, one that focuses on emotional sensitivity and loneliness, he manages to lose his girlfriend, but doesn’t seem able to connect the dots about his fear of intimacy. He also loses his job and has the police on his trail, but he perseveres.

Along the way Zack discovers that he and the professor have more in common than he thought; they both intellectualize emotions rather than feeling them. Finding the professor’s missing child becomes Zack’s new mission, but life and journeys are never straightforward. While searching for her in Tokyo he catches a suicide-club street performance near Harajuku and picks up a young girl who tells him, “The biggest problem of suicide is that it is boring. . . . It would be boring to kill yourself. It’s all over. It would be much more interesting to stick around and see what happens.” Amen.

Explaining the alternate logic of the suicide victim, Zack comments, “Death becomes the only answer to every question and situation. Death becomes the inescapable conclusion.” As we expect, he joins an Internet suicide club, trying to understand and perhaps tap into the poignant emotions he lacks, that drive so many young people to despair. The members, however, don’t want to talk about why they want to kill themselves, only about how to do it. He asks himself, “Is it better to feel nothing or feel their pain?” He finds the answer to his koan in a taped-up car in Aokigahara. It is this event that also inadvertently sparks the professor’s own epiphany.

I must add that aside from Shimoda’s tremendous story, sparingly etched, this is a beautiful book, one that feels handmade and produced with pride. Showing off the aesthetic possibilities in publishing, this weighty tome of poetry and palimpsest is lavishly illustrated and printed exquisitely with an embossed cover. Hats off to the book lovers at Chin Music Press!