[Aesthetics] Shades of beauty in Japan: madness & violence

Among the many Japanese words for describing different kinds of beauty that I wish could make it to the Oxford English Dictionary someday, high on my list are the below three words:

1) Beauty in Madness – kyouki-bi [狂気美]

The word kyouki-bi [狂気美] is comprised of kyouki [狂気] meaning ‘madness’ and bi [美] meaning ‘beauty’. It is not a word you would find readily defined in a dictionary although it is used quite frequently. Personally I would define it as:

The strange and demonic beauty of madness, lunacy and all manner of mental infirmities, usually accompanied by:

  • an intense yearning or obsession for  ‘purity,’ ‘perfection’ or ‘ideal’
  • a refusal to compromise with ‘impurity’ and ‘imperfection’
  • a readiness for death and destruction.

2) Noble Resignation – isagiyoi [潔い]

Next, isagiyoi [潔い] is a term that comes to my mind in connection to kyouki-bi. Isagiyoi is powerful concept in Japanese culture and though a typical dictionary would give its meaning in English as ‘graceful’, ‘manly’, ‘sportsmanlike’, ‘noble’, ‘courageous’, ‘readily’, ‘with good grace’ etc etc, none of these is correct – or at least not quite. There is a peculiar meaning to this word. A typical native Japanese speaker would give the below as examples of isagiyoi:

  • i) cherry petals falling
  • ii) a samurai committing seppukuharakiri

But what do i) and ii) have in common? My observation is that underlying the concept of isagiyoi is:

A ready resolution to  relinquish something or end the existence of something/oneself at an immaculate, pure or perfect condition  before the onset of contamination, impurity or imperfection.  It is built on a kind of self-determination to let go of or withdraw something/oneself before  downhill, decay or dishonour in a dignified manner and without fear or hesitation. The idea is to have no vulgarity, stain or ugliness, and to make a clean cut to preserve the noble, immaculate or beautiful. At the extreme end, this resolution sometimes borders on madness and typically manifests itself in death or destruction.

In Japan, one of the noblest adjectives you can use to praise a person is to say that he or she is isagiyoi.

3)  The Strangely Seductive Beauty of Cruelty – zankoku-bi [残酷美]

Like kyouki-bi, zankoku-bi [残酷美] is a Japanese word that is often used but never found in dictionaries, so here I humbly offer my own definition:

Zankoku-bi may be roughly translated into English as ‘beauty of cruelty’. It refers to beautiful images and noble sentiments framed in stark contrast to hideous images and perverse cruelty. The net effect is that the latter cast a strange veil of seductive mystery on the former and vice versa. Zankoku-bi often appears in scenes of death, destruction or violence.

The master Yukio Mishima has an essay on this topic entitled Zankoku-bi ni Tsute [残酷美について], in which he explains why beauty and cruelty are often bound up together like Siamese twins in traditional Japan.

In our classical literature, red autumn leaves and cherry flowers are metaphors for flowing blood and death. These metaphors which have sunk into the depths of our racial memory are exercises throughout hundreds of years whereby aesthetic forms are imposed on biological horrors, and therefore the currents of history have maintained a kind of balance by placing emphasis on either side of the scale as necessary. In times of war when too much blood is shed and too many deaths take place, people feel attracted to red autumn leaves and cherry flowers in order to digest and synthesize biological horrors. In times of peace such as nowadays, the scale is tipped the other way, and naturally flowing blood and death in themselves give rise to images of conceptual beauty. This is not something that can be resolved with imported modern ideologies such as Humanism.  [My translation]

These words will be very handy reference points in future posts on this blog. I think there is something unique about Japanese aesthetic sensibilities in recognizing and appreciating these three concepts. Below is just a quick list of creative minds who have mastered kyouki-bi, isagiyoi and zankoku-bi:

  • Literature: Yukio Mishima [三島由紀夫]
  • Films: Masahiro Shinoda [篠田正浩]
  • Manga: Usamaru Furuya [古屋兎丸] (especially Lychee Light Club), Shinichi Sakamoto [坂本真一]
  • Theatre: Shuuji Terayama [寺山修司]

(This list is by no means complete and feel free to contribute your own in the comment section.)


[Manga] Usamaru Furuya (I): The early works


7 thoughts on “[Aesthetics] Shades of beauty in Japan: madness & violence

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I find Japanese aesthetics interesting, but there is so much I do not know or even heard of. I’ve seen these before, but I did not recognize them. An example that instantly came to mind while reading this was events from the anime “Psycho-Pass”.

  2. @ roxirrox

    You are welcome. I always foam at the mouth about Japanese aesthetics, so stay tuned and come back often. 🙂

    I saw the first episode of Psycho-Pass a long time ago but it did not really stick. Can you tell me if it is worth watching? Why does this post remind you of it?

    • Looking forward to more posts!

      I do think the first season of Psycho-Pass is worth watching. It does character development quite well and you can get really invested in wanting the team to catch the main bad guy behind it all. It’s not perfect – the crime punishments are often extreme and gory for no reason and it does get overly philosophic at some points. But it is a suspenseful crime drama with an interesting overarching plot.

      As for the aesthetics, one of the insane criminals ticks all of the checkboxes for kyouki-bi and her works of “art” seemingly evoke zankoku-bi

  3. My favorite aesthetic among those I generally stumbled upon so far is probably “mono no aware”. (Which is in a way also remorely linked to isagiyoi, but not with the cruelty and violence shade on it.)
    The anime Sakurako-san no Ashimoto ni wa Shitai ga Umatteiru was the most recent anime that had quite some moments of “mono no aware” inside it and in one of the cases a bit of isagiyoi, zankokubi and kyoukibi got mixed in. It’s a shame through the the anime overall falls a somewhat flat (and not being complete as well either). But it has its moments. I kind of miss series, that successfully has all four of them. (The closest thing I know a are parts of the Ooku Manga.)

    As for Psycho Pass – It’s actually more of a (far) lesser and bare bone Shinsekai Yori clothed into a cyberpunk setting. (It’s funny how they aired in right the same season.) It’s main topic is about the system and one’s role in it. The system works for the majority of people very well, all get their futures laid out before them in accordance to their personality and talents and it works. They get basically brainwashed into that this system is absolute and while they would theoretically have a choice to not follow the advice of the system, there is simply no reason to not follow them. Those who fall out of the system are either forced to become part of it (in a somewhat macarbre literal way), or removed from the society by get locked up and isolated or they are simply eliminated. Shinsekai is far more ceonsequential in the removal. What the series never archieves to really explain as convincingly as Shinsekai Yori does is how this system realistically could have come about and actually works (it just throws around some random technical alibi explanations and well, one is probably very much supposed to just take it as a working black box). In Shinsekai Yori this absolute system with no allowance for derivatives is very convincingly emphasized as a real necessity in the face of the emmergence of PK powers and the vast history of mankind that has since passed. In PP it’s… well, it’s just there somehow about ~30 years later than what we have now.
    The conclusion in Pycho Pass with its main character Akane Tsunemori is also pretty much the same as Saki Watanabe’s in Shinkai Yori: They both have the same privileged personality disposition of a stable mind, get to slowly know the runnings and secrets of the system, and while they personally think it’s not good, they don’t destroy it, because they accept that there isn’t yet any better solution out there, but they hope, that humanity may reach it at some point. A bit of a diffrence is, that Saki is actually a derivative trouble maker within the system’s rules, but ends up being the head of the very system, while Akane is the model person of the system’s workings in pretty much any respect.

    Aside that the narrative presentation of both are obviously a lot diffrent. Shinsekai is very subtil in being thought provoking, Psycho Pass gets somewhat pretty pretentious at parts, shoves some things very much into your face and is more obviously meant to be an entertainment series with some interesting ideas inside, but overall, don’t think too hard about it. But some major plot points are interestingly similiar (also in ways of just how much better Shinsekai Yori handled them.) And well, some white haired bishounen antagonist voiced by Takahiro Sakurai, who pops up all the time enigmatically sure is more sellable to the mainstream than some evil rat mastermind that hides himself and his motives cleverly for most of the series and only makes his moves close to the end.
    The first episode of Psycho Pass is pretty much just an introduction on the system and setting. I remember having seen some 4 or so minutes PV and then watching the first episode and feel like that I did not get any more information than I already had from the PV.
    The first half of the series are mini arcs about criminal dropouts of the system who get judged by system. One of the arcs (the one roxiirox is refering to) is very reminicent of Mouryo no Hako. As in girls get killed and their corpses are displayed in a sort of aesthetic manner. To me that arc was the highlight of the series. (Which had me go rewatch Mouryo no Hako again and be reminded of just how much better Mouryo no Hako is. Kubo is by far a impressionate kyoukibi criminal in his obession than the criminal of Psycho Pass whose name I already forgot.)

    Overall Psycho Pass is quite an decent series. Simply a solid above average entertainment series with some serious elements in there for one to think. (In a way it reminds me of Death Note. It somehow shows a similiar sort of construction handiwork.)
    At least season 1, season 2 was just quite bad for numerous reasons.

    Personally I think my favorite kyoukibi and zankokubi is there in Kaori Yuki’s God Child manga series. (The Manga even basically ends up with some isagiyoi at that.) God Child is imo like a polished gem that Kaori Yuki archieved in those two departments (as Angel Sanctuary felt more like an unrefined gem yet). I think I like it best, because the cruelty is very much obviously there, but it’s not overly explicitly bloody and gory.
    I wonder why any work from her that came after it ended up to be just lurid somehow.

  4. I was so sure I mentioned this before. I must have been dreaming about writing this comment, I suppose.
    I totally forgot about another title, that really fits into all of the three aethethics, too – one of my personal favorites in fact – Pandora Hearts. (The manga; the anime is just as cheap and bad as it can get.)
    Admittedly the series starts of somewhat unspecial both in plot, narrative and art. (It’s mainly mystery box sorts-driven.) Although there were hints at the beginning already, I deem them as a little bit weak; at least I kept at it in the beginning mostly because of the rabbit theme in there. (One main character is actually a badass/cute rabbit/girl. I just could not pass on that…)
    There are however quite some characters which are basically the embodiement of kyoukibi and zankokubi. The amount of these notions increases massively later on in the show as well and the madness seems to infect almost all the characters more or less and with diffrent flavours as well. The isagiyoi part comes with certain other characters, but it’s presence is kind of a major plottwist. (And it’s further into the series, since that included basically killing off a fan favorite character.)
    The series is by no means a milesstone of history or a complete masterpiece, but it has pulled off these estatics quite much to my taste (among many other little things). Going by chronologically one could say a starting point of the plot is how one kyoukibi radiating character became unwittinly insane by getting bewitched of the zankokubi of another character.
    (It also has a fair share of mono no aware moments.)

    On a complete diffrent note, but since it’s somewhat about aesthethics as well, I think it fits into here best.
    I remember how, back on the old blog, you wrote about the maple leaf allusion, that the beauty of maple leaves is a beauty that flowers can never have and how the charm exclusive to BL/Yaoi is like that maple beauty to you.
    I usually think not highly of the BL/Yaoi, since most of it is just so mightily stupid and have a tendency to avoid it mostly. But by chance I crossed a massive surprise hit quite recently in the works of Kanna Kii (紀伊カンナ). She seems to be somewhat new to the industry and so far has not realeased too much yet (4 volumes in total), but considering that she is having this high level right off the bat, I am really hyped for the future. Tokyopop Germany has discovered her and published her Etranger series this year, which I picked up despite the genre, because the covers were so pretty and radiating so much detail and great atmosphere. I also went ahead and read her Yuki no Shita no Qualia and your maple leaf comparison was the only thing that came into my mind for even starting to express, how completely charmed I got by this one volume somehow.
    She has just started a new (first non-BL) Josei series Dare Datte Skylark. The first chapter was weird, but interesting in its own way and I have no clue what this series is going to be about. This unpredictability makes me all the more hyped.

    I don’t know if that might be for you, too. I might be totally wrong, but I have an inkling, it could quite be.

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