Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda
Another of the beautifully created books by Chin Music Press.
Only very rarely have I ever purchased and read a book more than once. The first time I recall doing just that is with Phantom of the Opera. The second, when my copy of Oh! was damaged in storage. I felt compelled to buy another because it was simply too beautiful a book to keep a damaged copy. When my new copy arrived, I decided to read it again. It had been years since I had read it the first time. This is a deeply philosophical book involving the journey of a man seeking emotion in his life. He feels as if he is simply going through the motions in life, in a boring job, in a loveless relationship, devoid of any meaning. He feels numb, unable to sense strong emotion or to grasp feeling from the things he sees around him. He drops everything to move to Japan in search of something but he knows not what.
The narrator starts teaching in a language school but gets laid off because he did not have the proper visas for work. It was there that he had met professor Imai, one of his students. He learns from the professor about mono no aware, a very complicated Japanese concept mostly applied to poetry and one that most younger Japanese do not understand anymore, involving an emotional response (usually sadness) to things around us. A classic example of this is the Japanese cherry blossom, very beautiful flowers that bloom and fall in a very short period of time. We have very little time to appreciate them before they are gone. Mono no aware makes us respond with Oh!
When professor Imai learns of the narrator’s search for feeling, he starts a series of tests for the narrator, sending him on little quests to check his responses to things. This eventually leads the narrator down a very dangerous path where a curiosity of Aokigahara forest grows inside him, thrusting him deeper and deeper into the dark corners of Japan and leading him straight into the arms of Tokyo’s suicide clubs, wherein lies “the ultimate mono no aware experience at the moment before death”. Little does the narrator know, the professor has some dark corners in his life too. They are both searching for answers and seeking to understand mono no aware. I developed a real sympathy for the main character, and when I learned more about him, for the professor too. They are both tragic characters who found each other at an important stage in their lives to help each other. There is definitely something of a father-son relationship between them that I found touching. The final chapters reach such an urgent climax that I found myself holding my breath or gasping in shock.
It is a captivating book that is terribly hard to put down. Each chapter flowed so smoothly into the next, or left me at such a cliffhanger that I never could quite find a place to put it down, leaving me reading late into the night. Between chapters are “exhibits”, or explanations of complicated Japanese concepts on poetry and art and culture, mostly dealing with and expanding upon various definitions of mono no aware. The ten or so pages in front and back have beautiful paper and art from the writer’s wife. The book is art itself. It is literature; it is a travel journal; it is philosophy. It is a thought-provoking and emotional read that reminds us to stop and smell flowers, stop and look at the way the sun filters through the trees, stop to listen to the birds.
Fabulous the first time, maybe better the second. 5 stars!!
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