In the Yamanashi prefecture of Japan, at the base of Mount Fuji, lies a place where dozens of suicides are committed every year: the Aokigahara Forest. Dark, dense, and almost completely absent of wildlife, this fourteen square mile patch of beautifully wooded area has served as a serene final resting place for thousands of people over the span of hundreds of years, making it one of the most well known spots for people who are looking to take their own lives, which explains its alternative name, “The Suicide Forest”.
On a surface level, it’s easy to understand why so many people choose this location above all others to spend their final moments. The lush, budding greenery acts as a canopy for its visitors, almost completely blocking out the sun’s harsh glow, and isolating its inhabitants, all while creating a gorgeous reminder of the beauty and simplicity of nature in all of her glory. However, for hundreds of people to visit this one place in particular, year after year, with even some people flying in from different countries, suggests that there’s more to the explanation than pure aesthetics.
Some people believe that it’s not just that this one particular forest inexplicably houses several suicides every year, but that Japan itself has a seriously high suicide rate. To them, this forest just happens to be located inside of Japan, which is already plagued with several cases of mental illness, and simply has become the most popular location for its residents to engage in this horrific ongoing societal issue.
As with any area in the world facing an alarming suicide rate, of course, the reasons always vary from person to person, but research has helped narrow down the possible causes for the myriad cases of self-destruction. Although mental health is largely to blame for the decision that many Japanese make to take their own lives, there are several factors at work behind this national problem, including unemployment, crippling debt, people losing their loved ones in natural disasters, the lack of support networks across the nation, and the glorification of suicide in Japanese culture.
Whatever each individual’s reason may be for deciding to end his or her life, one thing is absolutely certain: the Japanese do not want to be known for the amount of yearly suicides in the Aokigahara. In an attempt to shy away from their reputation as a country that promotes suicide, police units have gone as far as purposely not publishing as many accounts of those who have died in the forest, and even posting signs at the entrance of the forest, urging its guests to reconsider their decision, and to seek help if they are contemplating death.
This may explain, at least partially, why up until now, there haven’t been very many movies made about the Aokigahara forest. Although hundreds of people visit the forest every year, it has yet to truly become a staple in pop culture, the way that some other spots have become well known for their large amounts of suicide, such as the Eiffel Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge.
Although it may seem offensive to some to create a film encompassing this strange phenomenon, art should never be censored, and in truth, there’s something morbidly fascinating about the thousand year old Sea of Trees. The draw it has on people, the fact that it’s always extremely quiet because the trees are so close-knit and the rough terrain makes it nearly impossible for wildlife to survive, so there are no birds singing overhead or little rabbits running by, creates an eerie dead calm that’s both scientifically interesting and supernaturally intriguing. The choice to make a movie about this plot of land is admittedly, quite brilliant.
It’s a shame that the film itself isn’t quite as enthralling. Following the the story of a girl named Sara, gone to retrieve her unstable sister, Jess, from the clutches of the infamous land while she’s still alive, The Forest is at its best when Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer is playing both twin sisters. As she portrays the level-headed blonde Sara, and the rebellious, angsty brunette Jess, at the same time, in the same room, Dormer convincingly converses with the two sides of herself, back and forth, showing off her skills, and creating a bond that the audience can actually believe could span across entire continents. Sadly, these well acted scenes are few and far between for the talented lead.
The film definitely has its moments. Little jump scares here and there display the creepier side of the forest through the depiction of the yurei, or vengeful spirits, that supposedly wander the Aokigahara grounds, and torment innocent souls who dare enter these dreary quarters alone. Although certain scenes effectively create a swelling sense of terror (such as when Dormer’s character retreats inside her tent, only to have sinister hands grab at her through the cloth), once the audience gets a clear view of the ancient spirits, the distress is dulled, because the heavy coating of CGI effects make the monsters look animated and cartoonish.
Needlessly confusing with little to no character development and barely any conversational dialogue, Sara is a tough character to relate to, despite the hardships she supposedly faced as a child. However, perhaps the worst atrocity committed in this film is the failure to capitalize on the forest as an all-powerful villain.
Instead of focusing on some of the many aspects of this vast forest and all of its dark mystical mythos, it settles for being just another supernatural slasher, with the forest itself set up as nothing more than a pretty backdrop.
Perhaps it’s too much to hope that this movie would tackle some of the real-world issues that permeate Japan and lead to so many death every year in these gorgeous woods, but for a film that’s named specifically for its location, this is a story that feels like it could have taken place anywhere. At worst, its yet another tale of an ignorant, unsympathetic American girl assuming she can outsmart thousand year-old folklore, and paying harshly for her arrogance. At best, it’s an innovative premise that’s poorly executed with half-realized ideas and sloppy narration. Either way, The Forest just decent, which is unfortunate, since its subject matter offered up so much unique potential, that it could have made for a truly spectacular feature.
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