Aokigahara, also known as Jukai (meaning “Sea of Trees”), is a large forest that lies at the northwest base of Mount Fuji. Aside from its size and natural beauty, the forest is best known for being a notorious suicide spot, with an average of one hundred bodies discovered there every year.
Suicide is a huge social issue in Japan. In 2014, the suicide rate was at an average of 70 people a day, making Japan the country with the 17th highest suicide rate in the world. That might not sound particularly high, until you compare it with the UK and USA, whose own rankings are 105 and 50 respectively. Shockingly, suicide is also the leading cause of death in Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 44.
Part of the reason for this is due to the fact that the country’s cultural attitude towards suicide is very different to that of the UK or USA. Historically, there has been what is often referred to as a “tolerance” of suicide, or even the view that, in certain situations, it is the noble option. This is thought to stem from Samurai military practices, specifically the act of Seppuku as an honourable response to inevitable defeat in battle.
How is all this relevant? To put it frankly, it’s because I think the film is incredibly disrespectful.
The Forest focuses on Sara (Natalie Dormer), a young American woman who travels to Japan in search of her twin sister, Jess (also played by Natalie Dormer), who is reported to have disappeared in Aokigahara. Jess is a rather troubled soul, having tried to kill herself twice before, and so naturally Sara is deeply worried. However, she remains confident that her sister is alive, owing to that semi-telepathic connection twins are always said to have. With the help of a park guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and a handsome reporter (Taylor Kinney), Sara enters the forest in search of Jess. However, as night falls, things take a decidedly dark turn, and Sara is left wondering not only if she can trust those around her, but also her own mind.
I have a real problem with the fact that the film is set in Japan, and focuses on an issue which, as discussed, is very specific to that country… and yet has white Americans as its main characters. Suicides in Aokigahara are not an urban legend, or something that occurred 250 years ago; they are a deeply sad phenomenon that is still happening today. It feels profoundly disrespectful to the families of every person who has taken their life there in recent years not only to whitewash the issue, but to do so in a horror film situation. I can’t help but feel like Japan was chosen as the setting for the film not because of its history, but rather simply because it is a location deemed “exotic”.
Indeed, in the great tradition of Lost in Translation, much of the film’s depiction of Japanese people more or less boils down to “aren’t they weird?” After Sara arrives in Japan, we see her go to a restaurant, and have some sort of live sea creature served up to her. The chef encourages her to eat, while a group of girls sitting nearby giggle at our heroine’s bewildered disgust, which we are presumably supposed to share. Multiple Japanese characters appear for only a few moments, say something mysterious and superstitious, and then wander off again so that Sara can dismiss them as foolish. Michi, the park guide, is the only Japanese character awarded any personality, and he has far less screen time than Taylor Kinney’s character.
However, ignoring for a moment the ways in which The Forest is offensive, how does it fare? Little better, in all honesty. The acting is fine, and the film has the star power of the talented Natalie Dormer to draw audiences in, but that’s about it. The film is horribly paced, with the first half dragging terribly and the second occasionally feeling rushed. There was definitely potential in the story itself, but it ultimately ends up being wasted. The film has a few frightening moments, but at least half of these rely on lazy jump scares, and the psychological horror element is nowhere near as effective as the film thinks it is. Furthermore, Aiden, Kinney’s character, is really boring, no matter how mysterious he’s supposed to be.
I’ll leave you with one thing I did enjoy about The Forest: Sara’s apparently magical phone battery. She hadn’t charged that thing in two days, and somehow it was still going strong. If you ask me, that phone is the film’s real mystery.