The Mourning Forest Review
Cinema is a male-dominated industry in any country, but in the mighty land of Japan where the image of the sexes is, shall we say, a little old fashioned, this is even more so. Which makes Naomi Kawase’s career seem doubly impressive, having achieved the kind of critical praise and western film festival attention that many of her male contemporaries can only wish for. Naomi started out making semi-autobiographical documentaries that examine important aspects of her life and upbringing in the countryside of Nara & made her first feature length drama in 1997 with Moe no Suzaku, which promptly won her the Golden Camera at Cannes. Cut to the present day and Kawase’s latest film: The Mourning Forest won her the Grand Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, redefining her as Japan’s highest profile, and perhaps most important female figure on the international film scene.
The Mourning Forest is centred around the relationship between a rookie female carer and a male patient at an old folks home in the countryside of Nara. Both are haunted by the loss of the most important people in their lives; Machiko has recently lost her son in an unexplained accident, and the senile Shigeki is haunted by memories and visions of his beautiful wife Mako, who died 33 years ago. Initially their relationship is strained when Machiko’s naivety in her job infringes on Shigeki’s privacy, but soon they quickly bond and one day the pair head off on a day trip which is cut short when a boulder falls onto the road in front of them, causing Machiko to crash the car. Having no choice but to leave Shigeki alone in the car while she runs to find help, Machiko returns a short while later to find the old man has wandered off on his own. Eventually she catches up to him at the threshold of a huge forest, but she is too tired to stop the older, but still larger and stronger, man from wandering into the forest, having no choice but to tag along until they are so deep inside that they lose all sense of direction. What begins is a long metaphorical journey of self discovery, as Shigeki says he is going to where Mako is, and Machiko tries to keep him out of danger while hoping they can navigate a way out.
If I had to describe Kawase’s films in one word to a layman who perhaps hasn’t had much experience with minimalist Japanese arthouse cinema, then that word would be: “challenging”. The reasons are quite simple, Kawase’s fictional dramas are characterised by their semi-documentary approach, usually incorporating real footage of genuine inhabitants of Nara going through their daily life in the sleepy, impoverished rural areas of the city. Kawase is also unflinching in her attempts to capture pure naturalism from her performers (who more often than not aren’t professional actors), using almost excessively prolonged takes and natural lighting in locations, while completely foregoing any type of conventional film scoring. She also likes to dwell on static shots of rural scenery, sometimes to demonstrate the passage of time, but other times to simply evoke a sense of ethereal peace and beauty.
In this regard The Mourning Forest is very much an atypical Naomi Kawase film, sure she expands a little on her normal approach towards narrative by incorporating some very interesting (and naturalistic) flashbacks and dream sequences, but overall this latest entry covers all the familiar themes of loss, grief and abandonment, while Kawase’s camera lingers over the beautiful Nara scenery surrounding the characters. The film is basically structured around two acts: There’s the opening act that introduces us to the Old Folks home where Shigeki lives and Machiko has just started working, and then there’s this long second act where these two characters simply wander around inside a forest for almost an hour. In neither of these acts does Kawase spoon-feed the viewer, there’s not really any sense of narrative and whenever she does need to relay exposition about the lead characters, she does so in an elliptical way. For instance in one scene one of the carers at the home is questioning a female patient on what it felt like to lose a child, to which she gives us an answer as the camera focuses on Machiko at the periphery of the room, or there’s the introduction of Shigeki who is asking a visiting monk “am I alive?”, to which the monk offers a lengthy explanation that culminates in him asking Machiko to place her hand on Shigeki’s and ask a polite question so he can respond. The idea being that so long as Shigeki feels Machiko’s presence and can respond to her, he can feel the sensation of being alive. This is the fundamental dynamic of the film, with Shigeki and Machiko working as symbolic surrogates for the lost loved ones who are the focus of their grief - something that is highlighted in a playful scene where the impetuous and unruly Shigeki is in high spirits and mucking about with Machiko in the privet fields outside the home. But this isn’t to say that Kawase is so completely devoted to naturalism and indirect exposition that she doesn’t offer a direct peek inside the mind of the characters; in fact one of the most touching scenes in the film that demonstrates Shigeki’s segmented memory is a brief dream he has of accompanying Mako on the piano, only to gradually forget what notes to play as she gets up and walks away.
If there was little in the form of narrative and noticeably scripted dialogue in the opening act, the second act, as Shigeki and Machiko wander into the forest is almost completely devoted to a naturalistic, metaphorical journey with the wild overgrown environment acting as an incubator and metaphor for the strained mental state of the protagonists, Kawase adopts a full on documentary style by simply having cinematographer Hideyo Nakano run behind and occasionally around the pair with his handheld camera. While the opening act quickly developed the relationship between Machiko and Shigeki from awkward to warm playfulness, the forest act develops their bond much more deliberately and subtly, as Machiko gradually gives herself over to Shigeki’s spiritual quest and eventually they connect with each other’s soul. It is here when the performances of Machiko Ono and Shigeki Uda really come into their own. Ono was discovered by Kawase back in 1997 when she cast the then non-professional actress in Moe no Suzaku, and she has since found roles in a series of impressive dramas, like Eureka and Ramblers, naturalistically displaying Machiko’s withdrawn nature and naivety in the opening act and then subtly handling the broader emotions in the closing act. There’s one scene where Machiko breaks down as Shigeki attempts to cross a wild stream, seemingly invoking unstated painful memories of her own child’s death, where Ono emotes an intense and prolonged sense of complete hysteria. It is the most important scene in the film as far as Machiko’s character arc goes (with Shigeki imparting a gentle life lesson) and Ono completely nails it. Shigeki Uda is just as impressive in what is probably the harder role to pull off, given the nuances of portraying someone who is removed from reality. His performance is extremely disciplined and never falters.
In real life, the grief of losing a loved one is an unquantifiable emotion that no amount of words or condolences can wash away. In Mourning Forest Naomi Kawase doesn’t seek to break through this incomprehensibility and offer insight, but merely exhibit it, keeping the viewer as naive and captured by Shigeki’s rambling as Machiko is. This makes for a somewhat awkward, at times frustratingly drawn out viewing experience, but one that is strangely powerful and certainly holds up well to repeat viewings. One thing is for sure, this is not a film for anyone with even a remotely short attention span.
PresentationThe Mourning Forest is released on r2j by NHK Enterprises and comes bound in a open-book style digipack with an attractively designed 32-page film info & picture booklet and a small foldout leaflet advertising the r2j releases of The Mourning Forest and The Naomi Kawase Documentary Boxset.
Presented anamorphically at 1.85:1, NHK have provided a pretty impressive progressive transfer that has no major faults to point out. The print used is in excellent condition, with only one or two nicks and scratches present, and detail is solid – without the use of any Edge Enhancements. So we have a very natural image, which has very good brightness and contrast levels (some scenes may appear too dark, but that’s mainly down to Kawase’s predilection for natural lighting) and strong colour reproduction that is free from bleeding. The compression is also good, with only minor, non-distractible, chroma and low-level noise creeping into certain scenes. It certainly does justice to Kawase’s beautiful scenery shooting.
Unusually for such a minimalist drama, the only audio option available is a Japanese DD5.1 soundtrack. It doesn’t have a tremendous amount of work to do really, and the quality is high. Dialogue is loud and clear, with no distortion and bass levels are strong, although could be just a little tighter. While dialogue takes up the front centre channel, the stereos are used for the environmental sounds, which the voice of the wind making its presence felt. Here, the front soundstage is quite expressive during the multiple shots of the Nara countryside, with the wind blowing clear around the viewer. The rears aren’t used quite so noticeably, but when needed they too exhibit a solid soundstage.
Optional English subtitles are present, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
ExtrasAside from the Theatrical Trailer, the only extra feature is a 47-minute Making of Documentary which appears to cover all aspects of the production, from newspaper articles that must have inspired Kawase’s choice of locations. The behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s production is interspersed with interviews with the cast and crew, and we also get a closer look at the beautiful countryside locations of the film shoot; as well as more footage of the funeral precession that opens the film. The behind-the-scenes footage also incorporates a Kawase –style video diary-esque look at Naomi the director’s time on the set with her family, and shows how much emotion she puts into her work. Finally, at the end is some brief footage from the film’s run at Cannes, including the moment the film won the Grand Prize.
It’s a shame that there are no English subtitles, as the documentary is clearly more in-depth and much better made than the usual fare, but the footage of the gorgeous location shooting should hold enough interest alone. We also see the filming of a sequence where Shigeki and Machiko are shown being rescued from the woods and flown away on a helicopter, which must have been the original idea for the end of the film. So even if you’re not capable of following the dialogue it’s a feature that’s well worth at least skimming through.