Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
I've written before about Hanasaku Iroha, a personal favorite anime series featuring a diverse cast and a uniquely compelling setting. When pressed to provide a translation for the show's title, I've given, "The ABCs of Blossoming," which roughly captures what I had thought was the primary play on words within the name. "Hanasaku," meaning "to blossom," has a triple meaning within the context of Hanasaku Iroha. Given the show's rural Japanese setting and traditional imagery, flowers are a noticeable and ever-present visual symbol throughout, so a title reference to blooming flowers is entirely sensible. Secondly, the protagonist's name, Ohana, literally means "beginning flower," which is similar in meaning to "blossom," making the title an indirect reference her character growth and developing worldview, which serves as the center of the show. Thirdly, "The ABCs of Blossoming" can be interpreted metaphorically as a reference to learning and growing as a person more generally, and the show features a wide variety of people of all different personalities and ages "blossoming" in their own individual ways.
This week, however, I discovered a fourth, and perhaps more fundamental, layer of meaning.
In order to explain this additional layer of meaning, I need to take a moment to go through how you get from "Iroha" to "ABCs." The Iroha is an old Japanese poem best known for including each character in the Japanese syllabary exactly once. For those unfamiliar with Japanese, while Japanese borrows ideographic characters (called kanji) representing entire words or concepts from Chinese, it also has a set of symbols that represent specific base sounds, similar in function to the English alphabet. These two writing systems can be used mostly interchangeably, and in contemporary Japanese some things are usually written in the word-symbol characters while others are written with the alphabet-esque characters, with the general goal of making things as smooth and easy to read as possible. The Iroha uses each of the alphabet-equivalent sounds once and only once--it's sort of like the Japanese equivalent of "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" except no letter-equivalents are repeated (where the fox sentence does have a few). These types of phrases are called pangrams and are often used for displaying fonts and other such situations where you want to see every letter at least once in a comprehensible context.
The Iroha, however, is about a thousand years old, and perhaps as a result of its age it is treated as the traditional ordering of the Japanese syllabary. "I-ro-ha-ni-ho-he-to"--the first line of the Iroha--has similar connotations to reciting "A-B-C-D-E-F-G" in English. The word "Iroha" used idiomatically has a similar meaning to saying "ABCs of..." in English, referring to the very beginnings or fundamentals of studying something. This is how I generally interpreted "Iroha" in the title of Hanasaku Iroha.
However, the Iroha is technically also a poem, even if the actual meaning of the poem is not addressed so often as the literal ordering of its letters. I was talking with a friend about the Iroha the other day, and it occurred to me that I wasn't familiar with the actual meaning of the poem, so I decided to look it up.
The poem, roughly translated, is as follows:
The colors blossom, scatter, and fall.
In this world of ours, who lasts forever?
Today let us cross over the remote mountains of life's illusions,
And dream no more shallow dreams nor succumb to drunkenness.
(Iroha poem /伊呂波歌. (1993). Encyclopedia of Japan, Encyclopedia of Japan.)
A few observations spring from this brief bit of research. For one, the "Ha" in "Iroha" actually functions within the context of the poem as the topic-marking particle "Wa," which is sometimes translated in a fairly literal but highly stilted manner as "As for." "Iroha" essentially means "As for the colors..." and is then followed by what the colors are doing. This means if you look at "Hanasaku Iroha" and treat "Iroha" not as a noun unto itself (the name of a poem) but rather as the phrase that begins the poem of the same name, the literal meaning of "Hanasaku Iroha" changes to "The Blossoming Colors." It is, in other words, essentially a modern Japanese analogue to the archaic wording of the first phrase of the Iroha. The title is a nested reference to the Iroha, invoking its literal meaning and also using it metaphorically within the same sentence. Neat, right?
So since the title invokes the actual meaning of the Iroha rather than just the metaphorical term that is "Iroha," it's appropriate to look at the meaning of the poem to see how it relates to the show. Without going too deep into possible readings of the poem, it's fairly obvious that this is about Buddhist ideas, particularly the concept of transience and the importance of seeing the world for what it actually is (rather than allowing our thinking to be distorted by worldly attachments and the like).
The transience point is key. Transience as a concept is one of the most fundamentally Japanese literary concepts out there--anyone who's studied Japanese lit at all has probably brushed with the related concept of Mono no Aware--and it pops up so often in Japanese lit that I could dedicated multiple full blog posts to the idea. It's so foundational that it shows up in everything, even works of relative fluff. The basic idea is that it's important to be aware that nothing lasts forever--everything is transient. Mono no Aware in particular is the idea of seeing something beautiful and becoming saddened by the knowledge that that beauty will eventually fade. A title that literally means "The Blossoming Colors" seems (especially to an American eye) to be strictly positive, optimistic, and youthful, but the connection to the Iroha invokes the concept of transience and thus tints the vibrant image with the reality that the blossoms will not last long, and it adds a slightly hidden undertone of melancholy.
When I wrote about Hanasaku Iroha a while ago I spent some time discussing the brilliance of the show's ending, when the beloved family inn closes down and all the characters move away to continue their lives elsewhere. Watching Hanasaku Iroha for the first time, this ending surprised me somewhat, as the anime is fundamentally positive, forward-looking, and optimistic throughout, but with a fuller understanding of the title, the ending is not only fitting but also necessary. Among the traditional Japanese sensibilities buried within Hanasaku Iroha is a fundamental awareness of transience and of the sadness of beauty, so it is almost inevitable that the most beautiful thing within the show--the traditional inn that brings all of the characters together--must fade when the show comes to a close. It isn't meant to be pessimistic so much as factual. An awareness of the short-lived nature of things makes the appreciation of those things richer and more emotional, and the ability to ultimately release attachments to that beauty and to move on to whatever's next speaks to the Buddhist ideas that underpin the Iroha.
Traditional Japanese poetry is an exceptionally complex field, partially because many poems can only be fully understood in the context of the wide array of associations of particular words and the layered references to early poems that characterize much of Japanese poetry. Hanasaku Iroha's title draws, even if only slightly, from this poetic tradition. Its layers of meaning interweave contemporary interpretations of words with a network of poetic symbolism a millennium old. In just six characters--花咲くいろは--the title conveys a layered view of its literal subject matter, its overarching tone, its foundational undertones, and the literary tradition that informs the work.
It's nothing short of brilliant.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition