The MUBI streaming offer currently includes three films by Kawase Naomi. The Mourning Forest is the earliest of the three and the other two, Still the Water (2014) and Sweet Bean (2015) were covered on this blog on UK release. The Mourning Forest didn’t make it into UK cinemas but I remember noticing its appearance at various festivals because it has been difficult to see Japanese films directed by women over the last few years and I began to look out for Kawase Naomi films. Eureka/Masters of Cinema brought out a Blu-ray/DVD dual edition of the film in the UK in 2017 – which presumably allowed this MUBI streaming opportunity as the companies seem to link up on distribution.
I think this earlier film, only her third feature after more than ten years of making mostly shorts and documentaries, is more difficult to watch, partly because of its subject matter. In visual terms the film is very beautiful but the focus on a care home which includes someone suffering from a form of dementia might be sensitive for some audiences.
The film is set in the hills and forests of Western Japan in a township, ‘Tawara’, I haven’t been able to find on a map. Nara is listed as the director’s home town and somewhere in Nara prefecture seems a likely location. Machiko (Ono Machiko) is a young woman who has taken a job at a care home outside the town, located in the hills next to a tea plantation amongst the rice paddies. As she begins to learn the daily routines guided by her understanding boss Wakako (Watanabe Makiko) she begins to get interested in one resident in particular, a widower Shigeki (Uda Shigeki, a non-professional actor). Shigeki has a form of dementia which occasionally makes him violent in a childish way. Some reviewers describe him as ‘elderly’ but although he is grey-haired he appears strong and supple in his movements. (He’s certainly a lot fitter than me!)
I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers because this isn’t a plot-driven film and the story-telling style is sometimes opaque so that it took me repeated viewings of some scenes to piece the narrative together. The Press Notes reveal that Kawase drew on her own family experiences and that she chose the precise location because in this area families and neighbours still prepare the dead in traditional ways without funeral directors and bury their relatives and friends without cremation. The film opens with a funeral procession through the fields and a montage of some aspects of preparation for the procession. The film’s title in Japanese means either the place of mourning or the ending of mourning. We get a glimpse of Machiko’s home life which seems to refer to a child who has died. Her husband blamed her for his son’s death.
The care home appears almost Utopian in the context of care homes in the UK. There are only a handful of residents who are taken for walks in the around the fields and the allotment, picking fruits and vegetables. They have calligraphy classes and one day a teacher comes to discuss philosophy with them – is he a Buddhist monk? There are moments in the film when signs and posters are not translated in the subtitles, which makes these scenes even more mysterious, but we do see that Shigeki’s wife was called Mako and that he sees from Machiko’s calligraphy that her name includes the same characters. The philosopher tells Shigeki that because his wife died 33 years ago she has now become a Buddah and can no longer return to this world. It is Shigeki’s birthday and all he seems to want as a gift is to be with Mako. A few days later Machiko takes Shigeki on a car trip. They head off across the hills but the car fails and they are stranded. When Machiko runs to the nearest house for help, Shigeki doesn’t wait in the car as she requested but heads off in the opposite direction. When she returns, Machiko is forced to look for him. The time they spend in the forest (she does find him) takes up the second half of the film. There is a resolution to the narrative but it is also to some extent ‘open-ended’.
I confess that when the car trip began I was worried. Machiko is inexperienced. Shigeki clearly likes her but he has been aggressive as well. But Wakako tells her “There are no set rules”. This isn’t a horror film or a crime thriller, but even so, a forest can be a dangerous and frightening place as well as a place of great beauty and spirituality. We often think of Japan as a crowded and urban society but even on the main island, Honshu, the central spine is mountainous and sparsely populated. I have seen several East Asian films in which forests are much more than just ‘locations’ and I commend the stunning photography by Nakano Hideyo and the music by Shigeno Masamichi which create the textures and moods of the forest. There are two moments of fantasy in the film but otherwise Kawase uses an observational camera and allows us, the audience, to construct the narrative as we see fit given the events observed and the excellent performances of the two central actors.
The Mourning Forest is not an easy watch but it is very rewarding if you stick with it and allow it to work. I’ve seen some dismissive reviews which clearly don’t understand what’s going on but if you are interested in intelligent and beautifully made cinema, I urge you to watch the film.