In 2010, Vice premiered a 20-minute documentary entitled Aokigahara: Suicide Forest. Vice publishes dozens of short documentaries a year, but this one struck a nerve — it follows an environmental protection worker as he makes his rounds through the dense and sprawling forest at the base of Mt. Fuji that has become a destination of sorts for people contemplating suicide. The video is entirely in Japanese and strikes a muted tone, despite some upsetting scenes. In daylight, the dense vegetation of the forest (it's colloquially known as Jukai, or "sea of trees") is sun-dappled and oddly low-contrast; benign until the grubby personal artifacts of the presumed dead begin punctuating the forest floor. The documentary was linked to and reposted by countless media outlets, and prompted a morbid resurgence in media attention for the location.
Five years later, Hollywood has inevitably found a way to get in on the action. Last year Gus Van Sant premiered his latest feature Sea of Trees to a sea of boos at the Cannes Film Festival, and this week we get its more straightforward cousin, The Forest. Both films pitch Jukai as a kind of disorder to be conquered by humans; a disaster site on the order of the Titanic or The Towering Inferno that our heroes must survive. Both films are also borne out of the same conceptual premise: Spooky Japanese Thing, but With Caucasians to Root For.
Japan: It's still weird!
Matthew McConaughey was Van Sant's Caucasian (Ken Watanabe was also on hand to say a few mystical-sounding lines); Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones fame is the heroine of The Forest. Or rather, heroines: she plays twins Sara and Jess, the latter of whom has ditched her English teaching job in Tokyo to go check out that creepy forest she ostensibly saw that one time on Vice, the former of whom goes to find her missing sister after a missing persons report is filed. A lot of our suspension of disbelief hinges on Sara and Jess' "twin-sense" — in a hilariously economic opening, an ominous dream about Jess leads to a plane trip to Tokyo and a fancy hotel room, in the space of about two minutes. The sequence ends with Sara trying some still-writhing sushi at a local restaurant, in a comic bit fresh out of the '80s. Japan: it's still weird!
The whole suicide thing is a logical extension of that stance, framed here as impenetrable and un-American as a wriggly piece of ebi. The lady at the forest's guest center nonchalantly keeps corpses in the basement, schoolgirls skip merrily through the death trap like lost ensemble members from Suicide Club. Japanese people don't feel death like we do; the film tells us in so many ways. Their suicide rates are surely indisputable evidence of that. No wonder Sara bonds with the first white guy she can find (Taylor Kinney) at an inn outside the forest. He's a journalist writing an article about Jukai (if I was his editor I'd be pretty demanding on a fresh angle at this point) who becomes interested in Sara's case, and the two join up with a local guide to form a search party. Once their guide leaves them, it's up to the two Americans in Aokigahara to defeat the demons within and save whatever remains of the third American.
For all its bending over backwards to get any and all Japanese people out of the central story, the The Forest's real coup is how it mines its terror: after all, a vast forest full of the corpses of the hopeless that also happens to scramble compasses and cell signals isn't nightmare material on its own. What if the suicides of Jukai were in fact not a tragic outcome of a psychological state, but a kind of literal monster? What if it was an entity originating outside its victims, complete with a rotting demon face and claws, that settles upon them and enacts their self-harm for them, rendering it not really a suicide at all?
Sure, if you want to get philosophical (and I totally do, just wait!) you could say that this isn't that big of a leap; suicide is an epidemic linked to multiple social and economic factors that sometimes "settle upon" people in unbearable ways. But somehow I don't think that's what The Forest is getting at. The shape-shifting, paranoia-inducing ghosts Sara encounters and hallucinates aren't capitalism or the alienation of the connected world — they're bad things coming after a good girl. We're told at one point that Sara is particularly at risk because "she has sadness inside her" (spoiler alert: this isn't her first brush with a suicidal family member), but we mostly see her fending off negative forces, not creating them. She is more or less tricked into her most drastic instance of self-harm by a ghost's idea of a practical joke. There are no inner demons onscreen, only banana peels.
The Forest goes for literal horror over ambient dread
But of course, the real dread of the real Aokigahara is that the pain there does come from within individuals. The most emotional scene of the Vice documentary isn't the corpse, but the still-living man encountered in his tent, whom our guide Azusa gently tries to coax back down the path. We never see the man, but his voice is full of such loneliness and defeat, apologizing profusely, seemingly apologizing for his mere existence. It's later revealed he had been in the forest for five days, and was eventually brought back by EMTs.
It's interesting to think about what that Cannes audience would have made of The Forest. For all its inanity and clumsy magical realism, at least Van Sant's film visually captured what exactly is unsettling about Aokigahara, which has much more to do with indifference of nature and the limits of human control, even over our individual minds and bodies. In that film, the forest, like space or the ocean, is somehow both placid and overwhelming. The Forest turns it into an obstacle course (with a Google Cardboard experience to go along), too stressful to be scary. With jump scares and cornball demon faces lurking around every corner, the more ambient (and important) existential despair of Aokigahara is lost.