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 seppuku / harakiri
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.)