Review: Films Set In Japan – The Sea Of Trees (2015)

The infamous Aokigahara is at the centre of this fairly slow moving 110 minute film directed by Gus Van Sant. Located at the northwest base of Mount Fuji, this 35-square-kilometre forest has the nickname of Suicide Forest or Sea of Trees and sees an American man called Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) travel to Japan to kill himself in the forest where he ends up meeting Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe); a Japanese man  who has the same thoughts.

images the_sea_of_trees

One critic said that it was “a film for nobody” following it’s May 2015 debut at the Cannes Film Festival (where it was loudly booed and laughed at by an audience of critics) but he’s obviously oblivious to Tokyo Fox who is always excited about any film set in Japan. It has to be said though that the trailer didn’t exactly set my pulse racing when I saw it earlier this year and having seen it even I was a little put off from parting with my money to go and see it at the cinema.

There are brief glimpses of Shibuya Crossing and the bullet train going past Mount Fuji before the taxi drops him off at the forest. Given it’s notoriety, I wonder if taxi drivers would so easily just take a lone person there. With it’s suicide rate there are a few warning signs and as he begins to take his pills he sees another man struggling and lost.

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

As the two search for a way out they begin to reflect and the movie flashes back and forth which is where Naomi Watts comes in. She is the sometime-alcoholic wife of Arthur and the flashbacks reveal the ups and downs of their marriage as their problems are revealed. Having reconciled she is then suddenly taken from him in a devastating way which leads to him ending up in Aokigahara (actually filmed in Massachusetts though) albeit not because of grief or loss but guilt.

Finding solace in the company of his fellow lost man, Arthur is shown the light amidst a soundtrack adding just the right kind of emotion and tone. He begins to realise he’s not in the forest to die but to find a new faith in life and reasons to live.

As for Watanabe, it seems that he’s yet again just been used as Hollywood’s token Asian guy and is there just to help move along the white man’s story. Not enough is found out about why Takumi is there beyond his work demotion affecting his ability to fend for his family. His presence could merely be seen as just helping to portray the culture clash at the start of the movie and add the spiritual and religious elements. Having gone on about Japanese superstitions Arthur asks if it’s an ancient Japanese technique when Takumi says they need to go downstream to get out of the forest. In response he denies it and says he learned it via ‘Man Vs Wild‘ on the Discovery Channel which I thought was a funny moment.

The two are sat round a fire talking about Arthur’s marriage but as an English teacher in this country I’d be amazed if Takumi (or even Watanabe himself!) really understood the full extent and meaning of Arthur’s heart being poured out! Similarly, Arthur later seems to pluck the Japanese word for stairway from out of nowhere when on the walkie talkie to the rescue centre place. Quite amazing given that he didn’t attempt to speak Japanese at any point before that so one would probably assume he knew nothing!

The Sea Of Trees‘ is probably not a film to be watched again and again but it doesn’t  deserve all of the criticism that’s come its way. For those interested in all things Japan-related I think there’s enough to keep you intrigued and continue watching. Sure, the concept of the movie is very simple but as it moves along it sheds its layers and slowly reveals more and more (as should be the case with movies) and in my opinion it has far more depth and meaning attached to it than many others think.

Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10 

About tokyofox

A Leicester City fan teaching English in Japan
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