By Michael W. Harris
Note: A playlist of all the songs I discuss here is available on YouTube here. It is also embedded below to listen to while reading.
A few years ago, around the time of the 2016 election, I wrote a post reflecting upon the Japanese principal of mono no aware. Around that same time, about a month before, I also wrote a post on three albums that reflect the mood of fall. In my mind, these two posts are very much linked in spirit even if I do not explicitly link them in writing. The spirit that I speak of in the “Autumnal Playlist” post, the cold fragility, the feeling of passing, is very much the feeling of mono no aware. Which, if you do not click on the link above, is a recognition of the impermanence of all things. An acceptance. And while there is a sadness inherent in that acceptance, there is also joy in it, because in ending is also beginnings. In every death, there is also life.
Such is the mood that I find myself in as I prepare to leave my home of less than a year in Williamsburg, VA, and begin a new life in Memphis, TN. And as I have been mentally reconciling myself with this change, and all that led to it (to be discussed in a more detailed upcoming post), a few tracks have entered heavy rotation in my listening.
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First came the soundtrack to Freebird Games’ To The Moon series. These games, from a small indie studio, have some absolutely heartbreaking, deep, emotional storytelling that deal with themes of love, loss, depression, autism, and the lingering pangs of regret. I have yet to play the two sequels in the series, A Bird Story and Finding Paradise, but their soundtracks make me eager to…it is a matter of finding the time and mental fortitude to dive back in. The climax of To The Moon still makes me choke up just thinking about it, and the soundtrack can bring me to the edge of tears on its own.
The music captures the spirit of regret, nostalgia, and hauntedness that is at the core of the story perfectly. Not surprising since the composer and game designer are the same person, Kan Gao. And beyond the game’s standout out diegetic track “For River,” the song “Everything’s Alright,” used at the climax, is a poignant track that always “brings the feels” for me.
Similarly, the two songs from the soundtrack to Finding Paradise are equally moving and meaningful, though I have no idea how they are used in game. In all these songs, my main critique might be that the lyrics can be a bit “on the nose.” There is nothing subtle about them, but it doesn’t make the questions they pose any less meaningful or important. If anything, their directness makes them that much more powerful. To wit, the beginning of the song “Every Single Memory” from Finding Paradise: “Do you ever look back at your life / Regret all the things you never did. / If you could get a second chance / To live it over again / Would you still / End up here / In the end.” Basically, it is the question that pretty much all of us ask at some point in our lives, or otherwise actively try to ignore. But posing that question, and especially answering it honestly, can be a powerful impetus for change or healing. And for me, right now, I can honestly say that while I don’t know what shape my life might have taken with some different choices, I honestly do not regret them. Especially when some might feel that I should regret recent choices. But I don’t. Had I not made the choice to come to Virginia, I probably would not have gotten the very good job that I am heading to.
One last lyric from To The Moon, this from “Everything’s Alright:” “Why do my words / Always lose their meaning? / What I feel, what I say / There’s such a rift between them. / He said, “I can’t / really seem to read you.” / I just stood there / Never know what I should do.” This is written from the POV of a character with autism who struggles to communicate with her husband about their first meeting (to say more would spoil so much of what makes the game beautiful and heartbreaking). I won’t go deeper into the plot, but the theme of communication plays a huge part of it and that lyric is incredibly poignant and meaningful, even divorced from the game because who hasn’t struggled to communicate with loved ones?
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After the Freebird Games soundtracks, the next item to enter into my listening rotation was the soundtrack to Makoto Shinkai’s anime film Your Name, composed by the group Radwimps. Much like the Freebird soundtracks, the music does a lot to capture the poignant and wistful quality of the media it is attached to. And also like the Freebird games, it is the “pop” songs written for the anime that have been in heavy rotation. In this case, the songs “Dream Lantern” and “Sparkle” capture a lot of my feelings, especially the dual nature of my emotions. The sadness and joy in equal measure. Indeed, I have been listening to the Japanese lyric versions mostly because the melodies and beat divorced from lyrical meaning, since I cannot speak Japanese, reflect my emotions so perfectly. The high register piano arpeggios of “Sparkle” especially have the upbeat, propulsive quality of running into the future, but also a certain fragility by their register placement on the piano. And when you do combine them with their English version lyrics, the feeling is compounded. From “Sparkle:” “Words like ‘tomorrow’ or ‘future’ or ‘fate’/ No matter how far they extend their hands / We breathe, we dream, we raise our love / In a timeless land that is far out of reach.”
The songs from Your Name are more upbeat than the Freebird tracks, which have made them a good counterpoint to each other, but the media that they are both from are equally heart wrenching at times, filled with possible regret and second guessing choices. Struggling against fate and time and other forces.
Sadness mixed with joy.
A recognition of the impermanence of all things.
Mono no aware.
These are my feelings as I prepare to uproot my life for the second time in less than a year, and a recognition of the impermanence of my time in Virginia is a great way to describe what I have had to do over the past month since that particular news hit…if a bit on the nose.
But a crucial part of mono no aware is not only recognition and acceptance, but also making peace. And even more so is that finding of joy and beauty in it. A lot has happened in my ten months in Virginia, and if I “had it to do all over again, I am not sure I would still end up here in the end.” For all the bad and good that has happened here, I would not trade the time I have spent here. The experiences I have had, and the person I have, and continue to, become.
I will talk a lot more about this in a future post once I have had some time and distance from Virginia—it will sort of be a “William of Gin, Part II,” but it will take a while to properly reflect upon and write. In the meantime, though, enjoy the music I am listening to as I prepare to move to the next stage in my life.