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The Americanization of Aokigahara: The Forest (2016)

the_forest_posterAokigahara is located in the Yamanashi Prefecture of Japan, which lies within the Chūbu region on the main island of Honsu. In Japan, the forest is referred to as Aokigahara-jukai or the ‘Sea of Trees’.  As part of the Minamitsuru District, the 3,000 hectares of forest sits at the northern base of Mount Fuji. Renowned as a geological beauty spot, with Lake Sai and Lake Shoji to the south, there are several walking trails and caves that visitors flock to. It is easy to lose one’s way in the dense forest and hikers often leave markers of ribbon or similar material on their route to guide them back through the forest.

Similar markers are also used by a particular group of visitors to Aokigahara for another purpose; to guide authorities to their bodies. The forest wields an infamous reputation as a site for people to commit suicide, usually by drug overdose or hanging. Several sources note that the volume of reported suicides within Aokigahara makes the forest one of the world’s most popular places for people to take their own lives, second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, USA. The highest number of suicides recorded in Aokigahara was 105 in 2003. In recent years, Japanese authorities have refrained from releasing data relating to suicides in an attempt to prevent further instances. Signage at the entrances to trails, in Japanese and English, also implores potential suicide victims to rethink their intentions with such phrases as, “Your life is a precious gift from your parents”.

The forest paints a picture of pathos, and such familial references call cultural factors into context. This review does not have the means to provide the complex background detail necessary to touch upon the cultural, political and economic landscape of Japanese society but the question must be asked: why do so many people choose to take their lives in Japan each year in this particular spot? Suicidal thoughts can plague people at any point in their lives, regardless of gender, class, or other such classifications. Like all human activity, the decision to terminate one’s life is completely subjective, and depends on a complex and unique myriad of life events, and the individual’s psychological and emotional state.

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The entrance to Aokigahara in The Forest.

However, some cultural patterns can be drawn in regards to the limited information recorded about suicide victims within Aokigahara. The fact that most people are said to be males between 40 and 50 years of age suggests that financial difficulty, specifically related to high positions of corporate responsibility, is a stress factor that leads to the individual choosing to end their life. This is supported by the fact that suicides are said to increase in number during March, which is the end of the fiscal year in Japan. Traditionally, when faced with the humiliating prospect of informing their loved ones and peers of a ‘shameful’ situation, such as demotion or dismissal by their employers, Japanese men and women culturally embraced suicide as an honorable alternative. This harkens back to the way of the samurai – medieval nobility and officers – who, in ancient times, would perform ‘seppuku’ or ritual disembowelment upon themselves as a means of suicide reserved specifically for samurai who had committed a serious offence or brought shame upon themselves and their family.

Though Japanese crime writer Seicho Matsumoto’s novel Kuroi Jukai/Black Sea of Trees (1960) has been accused of popularising Aokigahara’s dark reputation, due to characters taking their own lives there in the novel, the forest has an historical association with death. In Japanese mythology, Aokigahara is said to have been a site associated with ‘ubasute’; this term refers to the practice of leaving elderly or ill relatives in a specific location to die, often during times of austerity and, according to folklore, is said to have taken place until the 19th century in Japan.

Continuing this folkloristic history, the souls of suicide victims are said to be absorbed by the trees, which renders Aokigahara with a spiritually serene atmosphere, aided by the fact that there is little wildlife in the depths of the forest, making it appear abnormally silent. People who have taken their own lives in the forest are said to become ‘yūrei’, ghosts in torment kept from the afterlife. In the two main or traditional Japanese religions – Shinto and Buddhism – the soul or ‘reikon’ is said to exist in a state of purgatory or limbo until the correct funerary rites are performed, allowing the soul of the deceased person to travel into the afterlife. If these rites aren’t performed, and especially if the person was in a state of anger or other acute emotional state at the time of death, the spirit becomes a yūrei, able to physically manifest on the earthly plane.

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Sara (Natalie Dormer) is cold and detached.

The Forest (2016) is an American supernatural tale that takes place primarily in Aokigahara. The directorial debut of Jason Zada, the film was written by Ben Ketai, Nick Antosca, and Sarah Cornwell. Drawing on the imbalanced relationship between twin sisters, predicated by a childhood trauma that was witnessed by one and not the other, the main action of the film is interwoven with the forest’s suicidal history – and this is where the tenuous link ends. This isn’t to say that The Forest isn’t enjoyable as modern horror fare; despite the usual formulaic use of genre conventions, I was personally entertained, and even enamoured with one particularly subtle use of formal storytelling to colour the narrative and Sara’s character. I was, however, shocked, uncomfortable, and a little angered by the film’s utter disregard for Japanese culture and, particularly, the sensitive site of Aokigahara as the central focus of the story. The film could well have been set in any American forest – this wouldn’t have affected the story in the least – but, instead, the filmmakers chose to Americanize Aokigahara.

The film begins with Sara (Natalie Dormer) waking from a nightmare in which a woman is running for her life in the woods, before Sara suddenly gets on a plane. The film then gradually backtracks to the days before her departure, intercut with Sara travelling alone to her destination. The flashbacks reveal that Sara’s twin sister, Jess (also played by Dormer), an English tutor in Tokyo, did not return from a school trip into Aokigahara.

Despite explaining to her fiancé, Rob (Eoin Macken), that she knows her sister isn’t dead because of their physic connection, Sara feels completely detached from the other characters onscreen, as well as the audience. Aside from this brief scene showing that she is in a long-term relationship, viewers know nothing about her character, her job or the life she so quickly leaves behind in order to search for her sister. This isn’t, of course, all down to Dormer’s representation of Sara; the opening sequence of the film is edited in such a way that the audience is automatically distanced from her character due to the little time spent with her and the formal way that she is introduced.

However, Dormer is cold in her portrayal of Sara, and this is pronounced by the way she confidently travels alone to a foreign country, fully expecting and even demanding that the domestic culture caters to her. In a restaurant, she is the source of laughter for a group of local women who find her disgust at the extremely fresh sushi she is offered comical. When she ventures into a tourist station on the outskirts of Aokigahara to enquire if anyone has seen her sister, Sara does not respond to the friendly greeting of “Konnichiwa” from the woman behind the counter in Japanese, or even ask her if she speaks English; she simply launches into her series of questions. Sara is the embodiment of Americanization; everything must be on her terms and she is ignorant, disrespectful and, in some instances, expresses an air of superiority in relation to the cultural nuances of the country she finds herself in.

This is the case in the way she bargains with an American journalist, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who she meets in a bar. Aiden is fluent in Japanese and is entering Aokigahara the next day with a guide for a piece he is writing on the forest. He shares her insatiable appetite and somewhat disrespectful ethics in getting what he wants, in that he agrees to take her into the forest if he can add her very human story, the search for her suicidal sister, into his article. Tactful. However, this does provide a perfect narrative prompt for Sara to reveal why she feels compelled to search for her sister. Inseparable, almost like they were one person, Sara informs Aiden’s dictaphone that the girls were robbed of their parents by a car crash. A series of flashbacks accompanying her tale reveal that Sara’s father shot her mother and then killed himself; Jess saw the aftermath but Sara wouldn’t open her eyes. Ever since, Sara has looked after and taken responsibility for her difficult sister partially out of guilt that she was spared the traumatic scene that troubled Jess throughout her life.

Though the character of Aiden and their guide, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) the script does touch on several elements associated with the history of the forest as a suicide site and its folklore. Not long into their trek, the group discover a tent and Michi has a brief chat with its occupant. He then informs Sara and Aiden that if a person brings a tent to the forest, they are still debating whether or not to end their lives, which is a subtle yet sobering scene. The group also come across a body hanging from a tree, which returns as an embodiment of either psychological/paranormal activity to ‘haunt’ Sara.

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Is Sara haunted by ghosts of the mind or of the forest?

This is where the film’s strength lies: the ghostly activity is never definitely confirmed as such. Michi tells Sara as they enter the forest initially that she may see strange things, but that these are only the ghosts within her mind, implying that the dense, silent forest, combined with knowledge of its apparent spiritual history, can have a psychological effect on visitors. This is reified by the clever inclusion of a scientific anomaly; Aiden shows Sara that his compass is spinning strangely, which is due to the interference caused by the magnetic iron in the soil.

Thus, when Sara is haunted by apparitions, the audience is never sure as to whether Sara is confronting her inner demons or the manifestation of spirits in the forest. Though the film doesn’t explicitly mention the fact that around 2am is considered the witching hour in Japanese culture, when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds is weakest, the first instance of ghostly activity occurs at night. Sara has stubbornly refused to leave the forest after discovering her sister’s tent, even though darkness is closing in and it would be safest for the trio to leave and come back the following day. Aiden decides to stay with her and Michi, reluctantly, leaves.

This is the point at which the film turns away from the history of the forest and instead uses it as a pretty backdrop to the action. Instead of embracing and capturing the spiritual, sombre and silent world of the forest, it is used to house generic and, more importantly westernized, ghostly spirits that appear via shallow jump-scares and have no socio-cultural relevance to Aokigahara.

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Sara and Aiden (Taylor Kinney) trek through the silent forest.

Whereas yūrei are spirits trapped in purgatory and, one would assume in regards to the ghosts of Aokigahara, were in an emotionally distressed state when they took their own lives, the two main spirits that appear – one the hooded body cut down from the tree and the other a school girl who turns into a demonic creature – seem to have an agenda in tormenting Sara about her sister. This provides further evidence of Sara’s guilt in not looking when her father killed her mother and then himself. Jess did see their bodies and has been troubled throughout life, bailed out of each mess by the responsible Sara. Jess has attempted suicide several times due to her personal trauma and it is ironic that Sara travels to Aokigahara to save her sister, only to find herself the victim of her own demons.

The spirits are thus goading Sara to take her own life, and are part of the hallucinations, or hauntings, related to her personal psychological trauma. The yūrei presented in The Forest appear to be agents of the area itself, calling to people to commit suicide and join them in death. This generalised, and thus western, approach ignores completely the lives of the people who decided that they had no other choice but to kill themselves in Aokigahara, any spiritual associations with the site, or the national, cultural, political and socio-economic conditions that led to the decision of so many to take their lives there.

Though The Forest has an interesting central character with a fascinating backstory of personal trauma related specifically to suicide, this narrative could have played out in any isolated location. Aokigahara, and the audience of the film, deserved so much more than Americanization.

About Rebecca Booth

Rebecca has a Masters in Film Studies from the University of Southampton. In addition to her role as Managing Editor at Diabolique Magazine, she co-hosts the international horror podcast United Nations of Horror, as well as X-Files X-Philes and The Twin Peaks Log. She has contributed to several popular culture websites such as Wicked Horror, Den of Geek, and Big Comic Page, and has contributed essays to following publications: Unsung Horrors (We Belong Dead, 2016), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Spectacular Optical, 2017), and the forthcoming A Filthy Workshop of Creation: Sin & Subversion in Hammer's Gothic Horrors (Electric Dreamhouse Press, 2018).

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