A handful of memories from Japan

Here’s another personal work devoted to a topic that fascinates me: Japan. In 2003 I already did a scene with a Japanese garden and in 2008 created also a set of eight illustrations with different Japanese motifs. But this time I think that it is a more ambitious project: first because I had to recreate many different scenarios and also because it is an animation, not simple static images.

I tried to approach again to the aspects that interest me the most about traditional Japan, through scenes inspired by nature, gardens, architecture, interior scenes, etc. I attempted that in all of them we could breathe a calm and balanced atmosphere through the use of light, composition, materials, movement… and the choice of the motifs themselves, that coming from Japan, they will be inevitably varnished with the aesthetic values of that ancient culture.

The music is a mix of percussion by Joe Hisaishi for the film “Princess Mononoke” with several themes by Jordi Savall, from the album “Hispania & Japan – Dialogues” which, despite being interpreted with Japanese instruments and by Japanese musicians, are using the melodies of “O Gloriosa Domina” (a piece of traditional Western Christian music; in the end credits you can recognize it as chorus). I felt that both them combined pretty well and it was also another way to strengthen the connection between the two cultures.

Como complemento: en mi blog tenéis un artículo dedicado a la realización de este proyecto, con abundantes datos técnicos y una descripción del proceso de producción (sorry, only in Spanish)

And on the most technical side of things: the next video shows a bunch of screen-captures with the process of creating this animation, modelled and animated entirely using Modo.

Traditional Japanese aesthetics

Traditional Japanese aesthetics are a broad set of ideals that include “wabi-sabi”, “iki”, “mono no aware”, “yūgen”… etc. And all these concepts doesn’t comprise an old forgotten philosophy that is only studied in books, just the opposite: in Japan such ideals are seen as an integral part of everyday life, applied to pursue what we might call good taste or beauty (Japanese beauty).

My animation takes its name from one of those concepts, “wabi-sabi” largely for the pleasant sound of these words, I will not deny it, but also because among the scenes and objects we will find several examples that fit that value… as well as fit others. Because, yes, many of these ideals appear overlapped each other, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Let’s make a small review:

侘び寂び · Wabi-Sabi

“Wabi-Sabi” is a Japanese aesthetic concept linked to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and has no literal translation into our language. Moreover, if we ask to several Japanese, it is very likely that neither they agree on its exact meaning. In a way, the fact of not being able to define in a simple and concrete manner helps to make it a very special (almost mystical) concept for the Japanese people.

You could try to define as “the beauty found in imperfection” or “the beauty of the irregular, the beauty of what’s (or appears to be) simple or humble, or incompleteness”. The wabi-sabi is closely linked to Japanese taste for minimalism, but also to the interest in beauty and warmth of the natural things, without artifice. It also includes the attraction and deep interest in Japan for the impermanent and ephemeral; or for the old and worn stuff: decadent things are considered most beautiful among many Japanese because they symbolize the pass of time and constant change.

The wabi-sabi, ultimately, can be considered one of the most remarkable and characteristic features of the “Japanese traditional beauty”. One could argue that this concept so ethereal occupy a position within the set of Japanese aesthetic values, similar to what in the Western Culture means the ideals of beauty from Classical Greece.

But while classical-Hellenic tradition has always tended to look for the symmetry and balance, perfect finishes, hardiness, monumentality, spectacularity and durability; in Japan, however, it can be considered deeply beautiful somewhat asymmetrical, irregular, brittle or imperfect (or even broken).

All that and more can be explained by the term “wabi-sabi”.

Citing to Héctor García, alias “Kirai”:

“… an asymmetrical cup is wabi-sabi (…) the shakuhachi music is wabi-sabi, ikebana flower arrangement with its asymmetrical forms is wabi-sabi, Zen gardens with stones worn and grooves that represent the continuous flow of things are wabi-sabi, the art of bonsai is wabi-sabi, the haiku poems are wabi-sabi, and the tea ceremony. All these examples of ‘imperfect’ arts also produces a similar mental state of melancholy and harmony with the environment”

いき · Iki

Iki is the expression of the “simplicity-sophisticated” or “sophisticated-simple” (although in our Western Culture this may seem as an oxymoron). It could be defined as a “refined and unpretentious originality” or simply good taste, but without being (or pretending to be) too original. Japanese culture does not celebrate the uniqueness, in fact there is a proverb there that says something like: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down”

Originally “iki” came into use among samurais to designate those who were brave, smart and honorable. But gradually “iki” began to expand its meaning to include everything that was elegant and distinguished but without pretending, without being arrogant or overly exuberant. In fact the Japanese tend to value minimalism and sobriety. Sometimes “iki” has been translated in Western literature as “chic”.

Although it was originally a concept that applied to people, it can also be expressed through the appreciation of the beauty of nature and even of man-made things. Whereupon it has been also used to refer to qualities of objects or environments that surround us. For these reasons the interiors of a traditional Japanese house, with its sober tatamis and its simple —but elegant and functional— sliding doors, are “iki”.

As mentioned in Beauty is in the Language of the Beholder: “Basically, iki was cool before ‘cool’ was cool”.

物の哀れ · Mono no aware

Another difficult term to translate. Literally would mean “the pathos of things” (I’ve also seen translated as “the pain…” or “the gentle sadness of things”). A state that derives from the own impermanence, the ephemeral nature of existence.

Quoting the article Mono no aware: the gentle sadness of things – Aleph:

“The most precious thing about life is its uncertainty. In Japanese Buddhist philosophy (…) there is no concept of the stable kingdom in or behind reality. But rather basic reality is understood as impermanence. And that is where its incomparable appreciation for beauty lies. Instead of causing some kind of nihilistic desperation, being aware of the fundamental transitory nature of existence is, for the Japanese, a call to vital activity in the present moment. To the hyper-nuanced appreciation of things and the phenomena of the world. The term ‘mono no aware’ is one of the most beautiful and panoramic concepts that illustrate this aesthetic of understanding”

One of the most frequently cases of “mono no aware” in Japan, today, is their love for flowers of sakura (Japanese ornamental cherry trees). Each year crowds of Japanese gather in parks and boulevards picnicking under blooming sakura as a way to appreciate its transience, the ephemerality of its existence. Objectively speaking, these cherry tree flowers are not much more beautiful than those of a peach tree, an almond tree, a pear tree or an apple tree. But what makes them special is precisely the fact that they usually begin to fall within a week of their first appearing. And, interestingly, this contemplation of the evanescence of beauty is what evokes a feeling that can be both time melancholy and joyful when people relate it directly to their own existence on earth, or that of their more beloved ones. All that is “mono no aware”.

I will do here a small note to comment that this animation, in addition to be inspired on traditional motifs and aesthetic concepts, it also includes some other curious details that could go unnoticed to the Western viewer. There are a few, and I will not reveal all ;-)

But I want to tell you about one in particular: the circular stone fountain. It is a “tsukubai”, specifically the one at the Ryōan-ji Temple in Kyoto. And it encloses a very special message.

At the top you will see that there are four characters engraved in stone around the central hollow square. Well, those four figures separately means nothing, because in fact they are not “regular or complete kanjis”. To be completed we must add the central square to each one. And that way, together forms a poem. The following figure explains better how it works, graphically:


That phrase we get from the four kanjis: “WARE TADA TARU O SHIRU” literally translates as “I only know sufficient” (which does not seems to have too much sense or be particularly deep, quite the opposite), but it’s really transmitting one of the fundamental values ​of the Buddhist philosophy, with Chinese origin: something like “I’m happy only when I learn” or “Just by learning I have sufficient” (in Buddhism, the idea of growing in knowledge or wisdom is deeply rooted ). More elaborately: “He who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor even if materially wealthy”.

But there are also other interpretations as “We must learn to appreciate the things we have” or even “We must learn to enjoy life, every moment”.

Whatever the exact idea that is transmitted, when a Japanese reads these four characters [吾 唯 足 知] represented by this so “creative” way in the tsukubai, he knows he’s watching one of the most rooted philosophical concepts in their culture.

幽玄 · Yuugen

Using simple words, you could try to describe it as subtlety, hidden beauty, a mysterious depth, the occult. For the Japanese cultural heritage, the life (or also a story, or a painting, or any other work of art) is very boring when all the facts are known. It is good that certain things are not displayed in an obvious or explicitly way, providing a slight aura of mystery. These principles are used to creating scripts for Japanese films (where not everything is explained and many things are left to the free interpretation of the viewer, which with each viewing can find new or different interpretations), and also on painting or the design found on all their wonderful Japanese gardens.

渋い · Shibui

Originally, and literally, “shibui” was an adjective meaning “bitter” or “astringent” (used to refer, for example, the taste of unripe fruit). And today still has that meaning (used as an antonym of “sweet”). But with the pass of time it began to be used also to refer to the minimalist beauty, the discrete, the austere or restrained. Shibui involves a waiver of unnecessary frills and rejects ostentation and ornamental artificiality in favor of general simplicity and the use of subtle details. Something “shibui” is beautiful because it speaks for itself, without ornate decorations but with subtle details that balances simplicity with complexity. That balance between simplicity and complexity helps the observer never get tired or bored when contemplating an object, but always find small details or new meanings that enrich their beauty, making its aesthetic value increases over time. That’s “shibui”.

Although it has many elements in common with wabi-sabi, both terms should not be confused. Most of wabi-sabi objects are also shibui, but not all shibui-objects are wabi-sabi. The latter can sometimes exaggerate their imperfections intentionally, up to a point that it could look artificial. Shibui objects are not necessarily imperfect or asymmetric, although they can include these features eventually.

序破急 · Jo-ha-kyuu

It is a concept that conveys an idea of time modulation and movement, something like “start slowly, then speed up and finish quickly.” Widely applied in traditional performing arts such as Nō theater, and also modern ones, such as anime and Japanese cinema. It offers an alternative structure to the traditional “exposition, rising action and resolution” in the evolution of a script, in the sense that the jo-ha-kyū usually has a cyclic structure. It also appears in the tea ceremony, in the performances of taiko (Japanese drums) and martial arts.

“Jo” begins slowly, inviting to participate in a possible exploration and creating expectations; “Ha” accelerates the situation, developing and dispersing an idea; and “Kyu” dissolves quickly to return to the original pace, as a kind of reincarnation. And this usually runs through multiple cycles, so that the cumulative effect of a wave, which comes slowly, begins to accelerate to finally breaks abruptly against the shore, to return to repeat a new cycle, again and again, as the circle of life.

芸道 · Geidou

It could be defined as “the beauty of discipline” or “of ethics and discipline”. Encompasses many arts and traditional activities using the -DŌ termination (from kanji 道, which means “way” but also “travel”, “moral” or “teaching”) as are kadō (floral arrangements), shodō (calligraphy), sadō (tea ceremony), judō (the famous martial art). Although it also occurs in other disciplines that do not include that famous kanji in his name, as Nō (Japanese theater) or yakimono (pottery). All these disciplines involve ethical and aesthetic connotations and teach us an appreciation for the process of creation or execution, for which a deep discipline and long training is needed and where ethics cannot be left aside.

雅 · Miyabi

This is another of the Japanese aesthetic ideals, perhaps not as dominant as the Wabi-Sabi or Iki, but no less important. It is usually translated as the taste for elegance and refinement, achieved by removing the vulgar, crude, coarse…

Bibliography & Extra Info

“Japanese aesthetics” – Wikipedia

“Japanese Aesthetics” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Beauty is in the Language of the Beholder” – Tofugu

“Wabi-Sabi: A Japanese Aesthetic as Worldview” – Tofugu

“Mono No Aware: the gentle sadness of things” – Faena Aleph

“9 Principles of Japanese Art and Culture” – Japan Talk

“7 Japanese aesthetic principles to change your thinking” – Presentation Zen

“La estética japonesa y su influencia en la publicidad” – Cooljapan

“El concepto de Mono No Aware” – Japonismo

“El valor de la impermanencia. Wabi Sabi” – Drosophila Notes

“Los principios del arte japonés” – Kublai Tours

“Valores estéticos japoneses” – Kirai

“Principios de estética japonesa” – Conoce Japón

Cristóbal Vila, September 2016, Zaragoza, Spain.