The Forest of Stigma

By Tess Fox

The Forest, a movie released on January 8, is a horror/sci-fi film based on real places and events. The main character, Sara, travels to the Aokigahara Forest in Japan after her twin sister disappears to search for answers. During the movie, Sara battles evil spirits of the dead who are trying to kill her. Her traumatic past becomes fodder, making it easier for the spirits to victimize her. No matter how entertaining they are, movies like these, about real places and real suicides, 2make a mockery out of mental illness and culture appropriation, reducing the topics to cash cows for big media corporations. For this mysterious forest is a real place with a very real problem with suicide.

The Aokigahara Forest lies in the shadow of Mount Fuji in Japan. Filled with mist and thick shrubbery, it is the second most popular place to commit suicide in the world (in first place is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California). 100 corpses are found every year by volunteers who clean the forest. Many are never found due to the density and size of the forest.

Spiritualists in Japan believe the spirits from the suicides created the paranormal environment. Compasses are rendered useless due to the high levels of magnetic iron in the soil because of its proximity to the volcano. Abandoned cars are scattered throughout the parking lot, their owners never returning from the forest’s depths.

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Not all who enter the woods die there. Some take a tent, stay for a few days and decide their fate once inside. Despite the signs urging visitors to call a suicide hotline and remember their families and siblings, the suicides continue.

Rather than use an international, million dollar platform to help destigmatize mental illness, Hollywood used this tragic landmark for evil spirits. This movie could have turned into an enlightening film about women and mental illness. Women in the U.S. are 70% more likely than men to experience depression, and 60% more likely to report an anxiety disorder. Each year about 6.7% of U.S adults experience major depressive disorder. Someone with a major depressive disorder has had two or more depressive episodes which caused significant distress.

The Sea of Trees, a 2015 drama, took a more mature approach to the forest. The film features Matthew McConaughey, who traveled to the forest to attempt suicide. He meets a Japanese man who has traveled there for the same reason. They begin on a journey of reflection together, analyzing their lives and their purpose. This seems like a more tasteful and appropriate approach to tackling the issue of mental illness. I have not seen this movie and, according to the reviews, it wasn’t the best-made film. Maybe with a bigger budget and more development, this movie could have made a difference within community of people with mental illness. The fact that it was made and focused more heavily on the intent behind suicide is a step in the right direction.

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The Forest could have taken another step in that same direction and been a catalyst in the world of modern mental health and suicide culture. Instead, it alienates people struggling with thoughts of suicide.

Eastern culture has a very different view on suicide. It is a respected, personal decision; a noble and courageous act. Western culture, rooted firmly in Christianity and the Bible, believe that “God is alone in His ability to give and take away life.” Suicide is a sin and is considered selfish in the West. The shame felt by people living in the Eastern world would have made a fascinating story.  There are no conversations about why people chose the forest and the fact that suicide is so prevalent in that setting.  That this forest exists is a huge red flag that there is a problem.

The ghosts that haunt Sara in The Forest are the spirits of people who died by suicide. Instead of creating real characters out of the real people that have died, the movie furthers the stigma of mental illness by making the dead people scary and awful.

All the Japanese characters play second fiddle to the white protagonist. They exist purely to further the plot, rather than provide any sort of perspective to the forest’s meaning. Sara and her sister are both tourists from America, come to stomp all over the tradition and culture in Japan with their opinions and ideas. The director had a huge opportunity to cast a diverse group of people who represented the affected, Asians and Asian-Americans. This movie could have changed lives, changed viewpoints and started a conversation about the “model minority.”

Using surface-level Asian culture to further a mostly white cast and crew is sad to see during an enlightened time of change.

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The concept behind The Forest could easily be reworked to still be an interesting, thrilling movie without being so derogatory to people with mental illness. The movie could have been an interesting fictional movie with true elements, or even a moving documentary. If I had to rewrite the script, it would follow this sort of structure.

The focus of the movie could be Sara (played by an Asian actress) exploring the forest and meeting the “spirits” haunting the forest that drove her sister to decide to die. She could talk to them about her sister and have nice, heartfelt Hollywood moments. There could be plenty of suspenseful moments and “Gotcha!” scenes with branches breaking and the mist. Through her journey, she would emerge from the forest with a newly enlightened outlook on suicide and the stigma surrounding it. Maybe she even creates a foundation to help those struggling in Japan.

I highly doubt that the creators of their movie made a conscious decision to marginalize two groups of people. That’s why I’m not going to picket this movie, boycott it or encourage others to. But I do believe that it is a great opportunity to encourage conversations about taking care of each other and about the culture surrounding suicide. Let’s take this horrible movie and turn it into a positive. However, one thing is for sure: this movie is a how NOT to start the conversation.

You can watch Vice’s documentary about Aokigahara Forest if you’re interested.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, seek help.

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