Review: Naomi Kawase’s “The Mourning Forest”


Naomi Kawase’s latest film, The Mourning Forest, winner of the Grand Prix at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, is such an ineffable, all-encompassing experience that mere words seem inadequate to describe it. But I’ll give it a try anyway. The film expresses a very animist sensibility, in that the natural world, and the sounds and space associated with this environment, are given great priority. Many of the visual compositions in Kawase’s film consist of extreme long shots that depict human characters as tiny figures in vast fields and forests. Connected with this is the notion of the very porous boundary between life and death, which is given concrete form in a couple of scenes. The film’s concluding titles explain the concept of mogari, which Kawase describes as “the period devoted to mourning, thinking back on the dearly beloved. It is also the place of mourning.” This may be her attempt to provide a bit of an anchor to viewers baffled by what has come before. Much more than non-narrative, Kawase has a distinctive style that is actively anti-narrative. Like other Japanese filmmakers such as Hirokazu Kore-eda and Nobuhiro Suwa, Kawase comes to her fiction features from documentaries, and her films retain a very strong documentary quality, with scenes that feel as if they were caught as they appear before the camera rather than being planned beforehand. In a key scene early in the film, a Buddhist priest gives a lecture to an audience at the retirement home where much of the film is set, illustrating what it means to be alive. The rest of the film is a quest to explore that question, through very tactile and sensual means tied to the natural surroundings of the film’s setting.

The plot, or to be more accurate, the situation of the film is a deceptively simple and spare one. Machiko (Machiko Ono), a young woman grieving over her lost son, works at a retirement home in rural Nara, which is also Kawase’s childhood home, and the setting of all her films. One of the people living at the home is Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), a man seemingly suffering from Alzheimer’s and still grieving for Mako, his deceased wife, who passed on 33 years before. This is a significant anniversary; as the Buddhist priest explains, in the 33rd year, a deceased person makes their final transformation into a Buddha. Shigeki is drawn to Machiko, mostly because of the similarity, in his mind, with his wife’s name; during a calligraphy class, Shigeki blots out the middle character of Machiko’s name to spell out his deceased wife’s name, “Mako.” Shigeki still sees Mako, who appears to him in two scenes in the film. The beginning of the relationship between Machiko and Shigeki is rather rocky. He violently throws her out of his room when, while cleaning, she attempts to throw away a rucksack that contains objects valuable to him. Afterward, however, things improve between them, and they are soon playing together like children, chasing each other through fields and climbing trees. One day, they set out together on a road trip. Machiko’s car breaks down, and while she leaves him alone to search for help, Shigeki wanders off into the thick forest nearby. After a frantic search, she soon finds him, and they venture deep into the forest, where it turns out that Shigeki is searching for the place his wife is buried. Machiko’s job is to be Shigeki’s caretaker, but at some point these roles become reversed, and this journey into the forest becomes a way for both of them to heal the pains of their respective losses.

The Mourning Forest, in its close attention to the beauty, mysticism, and subtle menace of its forest setting, brings to mind the films of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady). But while Weerasethakul’s avant-garde training employs his films’ settings as a site for formalist experimentation, Kawase is much more organic and mysterious in her methods. Her gifts for vividly rendering natural landscapes have invited comparisons to the films of Terrence Malick, and her minimalist aesthetics also connect her films stylistically to works by such directors as Carlos Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven, Silent Light), Paz Encina (Paraguayan Hammock), and Vimukthi Jayasundra (The Forsaken Land). But Kawase has an inimitable style and sensibility that is all her own. “There are no formal rules,” Machiko’s co-worker Wakako (Makiko Watanabe) is fond of saying, a statement that could also serve as Kawase’s credo. Her cinema represents, as much as anything else, a method of meditation, and the result is suffused with sadness, beauty, pain, and joy, all of which are inextricably intertwined in this film’s flawlessly poetic vision.