Machiko (Machiko Ono) is a young woman suffering domestic troubles as her husband is rejecting her thanks to them being in mourning. She decides she needs to meet new people, make a connection with someone, to feel more alive and not so stifled and shy in her life, so takes a job looking after the elderly at a retirement home, that way she can effectively socialise and do a good deed for the residents at the same time, and what could be more improving than that. She is taken aback that some of the behaviour she encounters is far from polite, as Mr Shigeki (Shigeki Uda) demonstrates when he ruins her paper at a writing exercise to occupy the residents, yet because she has the same name as his late wife, he warms to her...
Naomi Kawase made her name as a documentarian initially, before branching out into fictional subjects, which was what The Mourning Forest was all about, though a few scenes would illustrate how she had not left her factual style behind completely as there were times when we felt as if we were eavesdropping on life at a care home, at least for the first half. This lent an immediacy to those introductory sequences, though as said they did take up quite a bit of the movie and it was debatable as to whether they prepared you for the more spiritual turn the plot would adopt come that latter half even if there was a Shinto priest character who made light remarks about existence.
In spite of his pronouncements, it was difficult to observe much in the way of perception into the human condition with the film, Mogari no mori as it was named in its original territory. You could say you had to be Japanese to really get under the skin of what Kawase was trying to convey, though it seemed the Japanese had some issues with adjusting to the pace and implications presented: this was not a blockbuster there by any means. However, you could easily say the same about any arthouse movie worth its salt where the meaning of life and death was considered, and as Shigeki and Machiko undergo their own journey into the unknown, the unknown here being death, it was not necessarily vital to follow every point.
For Westerners, even for natives, the sheer strangeness of the film would be enough to have them sense they were getting something out of it, not that it was a way out there weirdo epic, there were no special effects or outrageous makeup to take in, simply a man at the end of his time as senility takes hold finding he is not so alone in this condition if he can get along with the younger woman who takes it upon herself to care for him, unto the final hours. Mind you, he would have lived a lot longer if he had not gotten into the situation where the two of them wander through the forest of the title and gradually decline as their surroundings, while beautiful in their natural manner, are ultimately not well disposed to keeping them alive as they have reached a point where they are attaining a state of grace.
If there is an equivalent in Japanese society that is, perhaps it was enough to say they had gone back to nature, only not in a living on roots, nuts and berries and staying in a tree house, Tarzan sort of way, more being reclaimed by a huge, unknowable yet recognisable consciousness that the forest portrayed. It was a neutral force, sometimes helpful, other times imperatively the opposite, but at all times patiently waiting for the end of the film, which you may be doing as well, either contemplatively or because you were hoping to discern a point to it all. As much as there was one, Kawase wanted her film to be about death and uncovering a location to bring it on as you accepted what your life had been, for good or ill, and were ready to move on, be that to a nirvana or an oblivion. Those you left behind would, yes, mourn for you, or you hoped they would at any rate, and the forest was a summation of that stage between living and dying where the tipping point would be arrived at. Curiously reminiscent of Gus van Sant's Gerry, this served up better scenery. Music by Masamichi Shigeno.
[Eureka's Blu-ray serves up a crisp and verdant image, with a booklet as a special feature.]