Monday, August 11, 2014
Aokigahara: Suicide Forest
The two minute pre-credits sequence to Santiago Stelley’s documentary short introduces us to geologist Azusa Hayano as he drives along country roads, the majestic sight of Mount Fuji drawing closer. Hayano tells us that he studies volcanic eruptions but is also interested in the expansive forest at the base of Fuji.
“In the year 864,” Hayano explains in voiceover, “Mount Fuji erupted and the forest that grew over the dried lava was named Jukai or Sea of Trees. Aokigahara is the actual name of the place but people started calling it Jukai because the forest, as seen from halfway up Mount Fuji, is green all year round and it looks like the ocean.”
A poetic start to a documentary. Then the title appears in stark white letters and things take a macabre turn very quickly. Hayano’s still in the car park when he discovers an abandoned vehicle and speculates whether the owner’s body is hanging somewhere in the vast acreage of Aokigahara. A few feet along the signposted trail, a large sign implores visitors not to waste the gift of life their parents gave them; to think of their families; to contact the Suicide Prevention Association.
It is immediately apparent that Aokigahara isn’t your average nature trail. On the contrary, it’s Japan’s most popular site for suicides – their equivalent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The comparison’s strengthened by the fact that both places have inspired documentaries. But while Eric Steel’s ‘The Bridge’ – a work that manages to be both snuff movie and liberal “gee, ain’t it sad that these people are so lonely” handwringing within the same awkward 93 minutes – focuses on the actual act of suicide, Hayano’s trek through the forest is study in aftermath.
Aokigahara is a beautiful stretch of woodland (though one can imagine that to be lost in it, or to be there after nightfall, would drain it of beauty and render it terrifying) and it’s surreal and disquieting to watch Hayano discover the remnants of human despair buried in the undergrowth or, in one startling moment, nailed to a tree: a stuffed toy, nailed upside down (“to express contempt for society” Hayano believes), and a small piece of wood upon which has been carved a suicide note. “I have come here because nothing good ever happened in my life,” Hayano reads, then coolly dismisses the theatricality as the work of someone indecisive about suicide, someone who probably trudged back out of the forest alive. Most suicides, Hayano explains, don’t bother with notes or scene-setting; they head into the forest and get it over and done with quickly. The most common means is hanging.
If this makes Hayano sound more like a psychologist than a geologist, that’s because his research in Aokigahara has brought him into contact with about 100 corpses over the years. Yet he remains pragmatic and even chats amiably with someone whose tent he comes across, pitched way off the official signposted route. Stelley’s camera maintains a dignified distance while Hayano and the camper converse. Hayano later explains that people often camp in the forest for a few days before they make up their minds.
Intelligent, softly spoken and deeply serious about ecology and humanity, Azusa Hayano anchors the documentary. Without him, ‘Aokigahara: Suicide Forest’ could easily have vacillated between morbidity and voyeurism. But as we tread carefully and respectfully through the forest with him – and as he discourses on changing attitudes to suicide in Japanese culture (from the honourable seppuku of the past to the more recognisable emotional malaise of the modern era), the modus operandi of the people who come to Aokigahara to die, and the indicators of their emotional state – the brief 21-minute running time extends beyond mere clinical enquiry and becomes a calm, quiet meditation on life, death, nature and the passing of time.