“If I were asked to explain the Japanese spirit, I would say it is wild cherry blossoms glowing in the morning sun!” – MotooriNorinaga
The aesthetic appreciation of the presence of life in all aspects of nature and the close and harmonious relationship between man and nature are characteristic features of Japanese culture. The well-rooted and unconditional Japanese love of nature and reverence for natural life enable them to coexist with nature revelling at changing seasons andstrikingly diverse landscapes, including picturesquesnow-capped mountains, mosaic of flat farmlands, andbeautiful spring cherry blossom-lined cities.The Japanese obsession with nature is partly due to their Shinto roots as it holds that nature has a sense of power and presence that is inescapable and beyond human control or understanding, and also because of their mindfulness and awareness of their limited time on earth. For the people of Japan, nature is a source of inspiration, imagination, and creativity and they delight in celebrating their environment in its purity and authenticity.
The unique attitude of the Japanese people towards the appreciation of nature is evident in their “seasonal festivals that celebrate the beauty of nature such as cherry blossom-viewing, moon-viewing, snow-viewing festivals” (Saito 239). This philosophical and cultural world view of living in harmony with nature has hugely influenced the diverse discourses of Japan and thus the elements of nature become predominant metaphors and themes in art, literature, and films. One of the most significant aesthetic and iconic symbols of Japanese culture is the tree of Sakura or the cherry blossoms, the springtime bloom that explodes in a lavish spectacle of pink petals gifting a euphoric sight to behold.
In Japan, this canopy of pink or white clouds silhouetted against the sky holds more to their splendour than meets the eye. The multitudinous meaning of cherry blossoms runs deep, making the country’s national flower a cultural icon revered around the world not just for its overwhelming beauty, but as a timeless metaphor for human existence and as an enduring expression of life, death, and renewal. These exquisite and volatile floral wreathsof tiny, delicate pastel flowers symbolise the majestic arrival of spring and the fleeting and transient nature of life and existence.Also tied to the Buddhist themes of mortality, mindfulness, and living in the present, Japanese cherry blossoms are a visual reminder of our short-term stint on earth.
Only in full bloom for less than two weeks, cherry blossoms are potent visual reminders of the fragile and ephemeral nature of life and have been long associated with the need for appreciating the beauty of impermanent things.Cherry blossoms’ subliminal beauty yet unavoidable nature of briefand finite existence is a popular emotion that captures the essence of the Japanese aesthetic concept ofmono no aware.Thebittersweet realization and consciousness of the ephemeral nature of all thingsare represented through the Japanese concept ofmono no aware which can be literally translated to “the bittersweet poignancy of things” or the “ahhh-ness” of life. It is the awareness that everything in existence is temporary –“the fleetingness of youth, the fading of romance, and the changing of seasons are not to be mourned, but cherished and appreciated in their impermanence, for that is where their beauty comes from” (Afshar). Thus, Sakura provides a perfect metaphor for both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.
The richly emblematiccherry blossoms have been widely utilized often in Japanese art, anime, and films.In films, the floral imagery of cherry blossoms holds a bit of significance other than being an ordinary, mundane and familiar image in Japan.It serves as a recurring motif or as a resounding metaphor of the Japanese aesthetic tradition of mono no aware and ephemerality. It also permeates as imagery representing the dazzling circus or circle of life and the belief that nothing can last,the precious and significant moments of life, and a seasonal image or the passage of time.
HirokazuKore-eda,one of the foremost auteurs of Japan, who excels at capturing the lyrical and poetic elements in everyday life, has incorporated the image of cherry blossoms in his piercing dramatic films that discuss the intricacies of familial relationships. Kore-edais masterful in exploring the angle of aesthetics in the mundane things, but if one notices closely, they are also symbolic. The cherry blossom imagery is widely utilised in his films like After Life (1998),Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Like Father Like Son (2013), and Our Little Sister (2015).
In Koree-da’s fantasy drama After Life, the recently deceased find themselves in limbo or in a realm between life and death where they must choose the most meaningful and precious memory from their life. The Counselors and staff members work to recreate the memories as film and upon screening this filmed memory at the end of their week-long stay, the newly-deceased pass into eternity, carrying with them only their selected memory.The almost-silent decrepit old lady, Nishimura, who is solely interested in flowers and the seasons, speaks with nostalgia about how lovely the flowers in the garden must look in the spring. When Counselor Kawashima asks if she was ever married, she imperceptibly shakes her head and when he asks her if she ever had children, she nods “no”. Yet she does not seem sad or pathetic in her loneliness as her fondest memory of watching cherry blossoms fall allows her to savour both the sadness of her life and the sweetness of her memory. This sweet sadness or mono no aware symbolised through sakura brings forth an appreciation of life’s brevity and evanescence. Just before she passes on, she gifts Kawashima (with whom she had bonded for his acts of kindness and sympathy for her) a bag of paper cherry blossoms that constitutes her memory. They recreate the scene of falling cherry blossoms and Nishimura enjoys it like a nine-year-old in her fascination with continually rediscovering the world.
Based on Sugamo child abandonment case in 1988,Nobody Knows is a haunting docudrama about Akira and his young siblings abandoned by their mother Keiko to fend for themselves in a Tokyo apartment. Keiko effectively sub-contracts parental duties to Akira while she takes off with various boyfriends for days at a time. Akira tries to provide for them as best as he can while concealing the situation from any adult authority. Akira’s decision to allow his siblings to disobey their mother’s strict instruction to always stay inside the flat is taken when the cherry blossoms are in flower. The children are next appearing from their confined domestic space and seen running through the cherry-decked streets. The invocation of this classic seasonal imagery of cherry trees becomes a metaphor for the transitory nature of their happiness and freedom and the appreciation of natural beauty. This visual image of the children running under the blossomed flowers is also indicative of the impending tragedy of the death of Yuki, which in turn, represents the ephemeral nature of life. It is also interesting to find that this archetypal symbol of Japanese tradition is not associated with conformity but with rebellion as Akira is transgressing from parental command.
“What a strange thing!/to be alive/beneath cherry blossoms.” – Kobayashi Issa
Adapted from Akimi Yoshida’s serialized manga comic Umimachi Diary, Our Little Sister is a delicate domestic drama that tells the story of three sisters who invite their sweetly charming thirteen-year-old half-sister Suzu to live with them after the death of their estranged father. In an exhilarating scene, Suzurides on a bike with a young boy and sails through a veritable and breath-taking tunnel of blossoming cherry trees tilting her headback in rapture, the petals arcing over the road. This overwhelming tableau is symbolic of her blossoming bond with her newfound sisters and is also reminiscent of the fleeting nature of time and the effort to keep in memory of these precious moments alive. It also features a quietly affecting scene in which the sisters share a joyous moment in the resplendent orchard of cherry blossoms, sharing memories and absorbing the warmth of the sun, and one of the sisters even overtly states, “I wonder what I’ll remember in the end.”
The blossoms also remind Suzuof the deathbed of her father and his wish to live until the blooms appeared outside his hospital room window. The need to celebrate the preciousness and richness of each passing moment is evoked when the beauty of the blossoms is wrapped up in death.Suzucollects the petals of sakura swirling their way down to the beach, pink and soft, their delicate structure now damaged by the rocks, wilted, bruised, and creased in the salty sea waves. The cherry blossoms serve as a metaphor for the impermanence of things in life that needs to be cherished for aesthetic pleasure and ephemerality.
In Still Walking and Like Father Like Son, the visual image of cherry blossomsisaesthetically pleasing, but they arepart of the mundane and ordinary sight of Spring. In Still Walking, the image of children enjoying the cherry blossoms in full bloom shows their innocence and also the momentary and fleeting nature of their innocence. In Like Father LikeSon, the wholesome family is walking under the low hanging cherry blossoms which appear like a scud of clouds in the sky. They arehappily indulging in the moment cherishing the cherry blossoms, but it also shows how their happiness is transient and foreshadows the life-impacting decision Ryoto has to take on either keep Keita, the boy they raised as their own son, or exchange him for their biological sonRyusei.
One of the most acclaimed figures in modern Japanese cinema, Naomi Kawase, who has the extraordinary ability to portray relationships between people, has also utilised the image of cherry blossom in her heart-warming film Sweet Bean(2015). The protagonist Tokue, an eccentric woman in her seventies, got socially ostracized as part of Japan’s leprosy prevention laws because she had contracted leprosy. Since she was forced to stay in the sanatorium quarantined away from societysince she was a child, she is nostalgic about the cherry trees which blossomed in Spring. Whenever she visits society, she remarks on the beauty of the cherry tree, how tall it has grown since she first saw it, and how lovely the blossoms are. Tokue’s cheery admiration for the swaying blossoms glistening in the ray of dappled sunlight is shown when she says, “They’re waving their hands…” The cherry blossoms become a metaphor for the need for appreciating the beauty of impermanent or transient pleasures of life and the happiness one derives from the sensory experience. The symbolic transformation of blossoms to scattered petals is a reflection nature of our human lives.Kawase depicts the passage of time with beautifully shot changes of season, ending the film with the vivid cherry blossoms of spring.
The enormously influential and the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, YasujiroOzu,who created films about middle-class Japanese life and familial relationships with simplicity and austerity generally avoided the cherry blossom imagery in his films. But some of the films rarely spot the cherry trees in blossom which are thematically and metaphorically apt in representing the character’s transition or to represent the seasonal imagery. In Late Spring (1949), the heroine Noriko finds herself in the ‘late spring’ of her life, approaching an age at which she would no longer be considered marriageable. Apart from the direct reference to the season of spring, it also symbolises her transition from daughter to wife opening a new chapter in life. Before her wedding, Noriko and her father ShukichiSomiyago on one last trip visiting Kyoto and witnesses the Sakura season where she has a shift in her ideology about her concept of remarriages to be distasteful. She has a sudden realisation or awareness of the cyclical and ephemeral nature of life and about the passages in the human life cycle. Cherry trees in full blossom also appear in Ozu films like Tokyo Story (1953), Early Spring (1956), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) as the trademark feature of pillow shots, those short, place-setting moments between scenes which are a trademark of Ozu films. These pillow shots also convey the mono no aware aesthetic using the surface of mise-en-scene to convey deeper philosophical ideals.
“And so the spring buds burst, and so I gaze,
And so the blossoms fall, and so my days …”― Onitsura
Based on the 2015 novelby Yoru Sumino,ShōTsukikawa’sromance drama Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (2017) and its anime film adaptation Shin’ichiro Ushijima’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2018) utilises the motif of cherry blossoms in its poignant associationto show the circle of life, the fleeting and transient nature of life, and the need for celebration when life gives you the chance. It evokes the gentle sweet sadness of mono no awaremaking the spectators realise that life is finite and fragile and it gives all the more value to it. Set in the season of spring when the last of the cherry blossoms are still in bloom, it follows the story of an aloof and bookworm Haruki who discovers that his genuinely cheerful classmate, Sakura Yamauchi, is suffering from a pancreatic illness and only has a limited time left.The film that opens with the image of Sakura in springforeshadows the death of Sakura and is ever-present throughout the movie indicating the ephemeral nature of life and happiness. The name of the character Sakura is symbolic as it represents her innocence and the spirit of beauty, and just like the cherry blossom that blooms quickly and lives for a short time, she also dies prematurely.
Set in the Edo period,Kenji Nakanishi’s Hana No Atoaka After the Flowers (2010) is a tragic love story based on a novel written by Shuhei Fujisawa. Ito, daughter of a clan official and a master female swordsman, falls in love with MagoshiroEguchi, a swordsman, after Ito challenges Magoshiro to a sword match using bamboo sticks. They set eyes on each other while enjoying the cherry blossoms at a sakura festival. Tensions arise when Ito is arranged to marry another man and her new love, Magoshiro, is from a clan that is not on par with hers. When Ito learns that Magoshiro has taken his own life and she is determined to know the reason behind his decision to perish. Set against the backdrop of fleeting sakura, thisforbidden and star-crossed samurai romance uses the motif of cherry blossoms to suggest the short-lived and transient love between the pair, suggesting how precious but precarious love and life can be.
Based on the serial novel of the same name by Jun’ichiroTanizaki, Kon Ichikawa’s sensuously beautiful film The Makioka Sisters (1983) details the lives of four sisters as they try to marry off the third while grappling with the rebellious nature of the fourth. They always gather in Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms, the ritual marking the changes in their lives from year to year. This rare instance of mono no aware, where they enjoy the ephemeral nature of beauty in the sakura– the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life, also metaphorically represents the only moment when the sister are seen united and at peace with each other. Nothing in the world around them can disrupt this unity, unlike the rest of the film where they are constantly at odds with one another. They stare at the cherry blossoms with utmost delight and wonder, which both serve as a theme of constant change, but also consistency in the world around them. The feeling of loss and gentle sadness is intensified when awareness dawns that image of the four sisters back on their walk through the cherry blossoms will never take place ever again.
In Jun’ichi Mori’s Little Forest Winter/Spring(2015) and Shunji Iwai’s April Story (1998), the cherry blossoms represent the passage of time or the seasonal change of nature. Based on a slice of life Japanese manga series by Daisuke Igarashi, Little Forest Winter/Spring is an ode to the simple pleasures of life. The protagonist Ichiko who returned to her family home in Komori after facing a string of hardships in her busy, lacklustre city life, lives in close communion with nature, worshipping nature as the provider of sustenance and nourishment. In the film, Ichiko is seen cycling beneath the light pink blossoms enjoying nature’s beauty and absorbing the simple and evanescent pleasures of life. A similar scene appears in Iwai’s charming coming-of-age romantic dramaApril Story that follows the story of a shy girl UzukiNirenoas she leaves her snow-covered hometown in the north for university in Tokyo.At the beginning of the film, the moving truck that reaches the destination of Nireno’s new apartment is seen surrounded by cherry trees with sakura falling off the trees. It signifies a beautiful metaphor for the beginning of a new chapter in Nireno’s life. Nireno is also seen cycling through the transitional spring suffused with cherry blossom imagery indicative of her life’s infinite possibilities.
In Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (2002)which is part of Kitano’s non-crime film oeuvre, the cherry blossoms represent symbolic scenery of the spring season. It follows a young couple Matsumoto and Sawako, known as “the bound beggars,” who, tied together by a long red rope, slowly make their way across the landscape while the seasons change. On being abandoned by Matsumoto to accept a semi-arranged marriage to his boss’ daughter,Sawako attempts suicide only to survive but in an almost catatonic state. Matsumoto breaks off the engagement to be with Sawako and wanders through different terrains as seasons change from spring to summer to fall to winter. The opening of the film features the pair of wounded lovers bound by tragedy as they wander beneath the cherry blossoms in full bloom.After that, theymove along to green verdant landscapes, the overwhelming redness of autumn leaves, and finally the purity of the winter snow.
“When cherry trees blossom, people have parties. They sit under the trees with food and beverages. ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ ‘Spring is in its prime!’ That’s all nonsense. Cherry blossoms have just become an excuse for a party. People have done this for the last few hundred years, since the Edo period. Before that, the trees were considered horrifying. Imagine being the only one underneath the blossoming cherry trees.”
Masahiro Shinoda’s most terrifyingly beautiful film based on the story of AngoSakaguchi, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975)is a horrific historic fable that features the cherry blossoms in a new avatar evoking genuine fear and discomfort deviating and repurposing from the usual meanings of innocence, happiness, and celebration associated with the season. This transgressive film opens in a modern-day hanami (cherry blossom-viewing festival) festival juxtaposing it with a voice-over that tells us that cherry blossoms were once feared and thought to be harbingers of madness, so “well-trodden paths formed far from the cherry trees and no one walked through the cherry trees.” The film tells the story of a mountain bandit who discovers after kidnapping a noblewoman and forcing her to become his wife that he is unable to satiate her bizarre desire for freshly severed heads.
This grim fairy taleavoids the typical horror movie tropes replacing it with psychological dread and startling imagery that unnerves and arouses the senses.The cascading visual of cherry blossoms create moments of breath-taking beauty, including an unforgettable scene involving traveling priests who appear to go mad while the bandit watches in disbelief. The murderous and malicious intent of the cherry blossoms gets reiterated when the couple passes through the ominous cherry blossom forest and their picturesque detour has dire consequences for both of them, which ultimately ends in a beautifully executed murder under the blossoming cherry trees.The contrast between the ephemeral beauty of the cherry blossom and the endless vicious cycle of murder for futilely satisfying the incessant obsession conveys a chilling apprehension throughout.
Sakura season has always been a fascinating backdrop for popular anime movies and shows.It is ubiquitous from mere background trappings to Akari Shinohara’s title drop in Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second.The imagery of sakurais frequently used as a symbol of new beginnings and a visual reminder of hope and new dreams, friendship and alliances, and the transitory nature of life.Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second (2007) and Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice (2016)utilises it as a perfect metaphor for the aesthetic concept of mono no aware.
Makoto Shinkai’s title5 Centimeters per Second comes from the speed at which cherry blossoms petals fall,petals being a metaphorical representation of humans, reminiscent of the slowness of life and how people often start together but slowly drift into their separate ways. It evokes the wistfulness of mono no aware as it delves into the reality of life after the loss of a meaningful relationship. Childhood friends and sweethearts Takaki Tonoand Akari Shinohara, who are torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, cling to the hope of seeing each other again. But as the progression of time widens, the distance between them intensifies only leaving them their ever-present chain of memories. When they meet years later coincidentally at the train crossing, they remember they had promised to watch the cherry blossoms together thirteen years ago, they recognise each other but moves on in different directions as the cherry blossoms stir in the train’s wake.
Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice deals with the ubiquitous Japanese subject of school bullying from the perspective of the bully. It follows the story of Shoya Ishida, who, after feeling unworthy of redemption for his sins,reaches out to the deaf girl ShoukoNishimiya he had tormented in grade school to try to make amends with her. They meet together in a bridge framed by cherry blossoms in full bloom, break bread together, and feed the koi in a nearby river from a bridge. The passing nature of cherry blossoms blooming, falling to the ground, and dying are metaphorical of the impermanence of life. It ultimately leads to the reconciliation and friendship of Shouko and Shoya who are made all themore stronger due to the adversity that both characters had to face.
Some of the notable films that employ the metaphor of cherry blossoms include Shun Kenji Mizoguchi’sMiss Oyu (1951), Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre (1969), Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (1990), NagisaOshima’sGohatto (1999), Ken Ochiai’sUzumasa Limelight (2014), and Gen Takahashi’s Yoko the Cherry Blossom (2015). A non-Japanese film that upholds cherry blossoms as the symbol of ephemerality is Doris Dorrie’s emotionally intense and profound German film Cherry Blossoms aka Hanami (2008).
The awareness of the transience of all things heightens the appreciation of their beauty,and in that respect, the aesthetic symbol of Japanese culture, cherry blossoms quintessentially embodies the soul of Japan. Undoubtedly, it is evident from the art, literature, and films, the inner soul of Japan lives on the cherry blossoms. Sakura informs the Japanese cultural landscape of the concept of mono no aware manifesting in a timeless celebration of beauty and ephemerality. It is doubtful whether any other plant could ever manage to etch itself onto the national psyche in quite the same way as the ephemeral sakura.As the flowers die and the petals fall, cherry blossoms line the streets like a layer of soft, pink snow, and are most beautiful when captured between the precipice of life and death. So it is suggestive of the need for the graceful acceptance of our destiny and to appreciate the simpler pleasures of life without restraint or inhibition.
Afshar, Dave. “What Is Mono No Aware, the Japanese Love for Impermanence?”The Culture Trip, 1 May 2018, theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/what-is-mono-no aware-the-japanese-love-for-impermanence/. Accessed 9 June 2021.
Desser, David. ““After Life”: History, Memory, Trauma and the Transcendent.” Film Criticism, vol. 35, no. 2/3, 2011, pp. 46-65, www.jstor.org/stable/44019319.
Hass, Robert. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, &Issa. The Ecco Press, 1995.
Hoffman, Michael.Sakura: Soul of Japan. The Japan Times, 25 Mar. 2012, www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/03/25/general/sakura-soul-of-japan/. Accessed 10 June 2021.
Jacoby, Alexander. “Why Nobody Knows – Family and Society in Modern Japan.” Film Criticism, vol. 35, no. 2/3, 2011, pp. 66-83, www.jstor.org/stable/44019320.
Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Appreciation of Nature.”The British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 25, no. 3, 1985, pp. 239–251, doi.org/10.1093/bjaesthetics/25.3.239.
Scanlon, Hayley. “Cherry blossom season: 13 visions of springtime in Japanese cinema.” British Film Institute, 1 Apr. 2021, www.bfi.org.uk/features/springtime-japanese cinema.Accessed 12 June 2021.