The Sea of Trees

The Sea of Trees ★★★½

"God is more our creation than we are his." ~ Arthur Brennan

Having lived there for two dozen years, I'm always eager to see new films that use Japan as a location, especially when they are made by one of my favorite directors and feature an Academy Award winner and two Oscar nominees. Here, filmmaker Gus Van Sant takes us to the Aokigahara "Suicide Forest" in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, the second most popular place in the world to take one's life after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Many Japanese have described it as "the perfect place to die."

Matthew McConaughey plays American adjunct professor Arthur Brennen, who has come to the legendary woods with a bottle of pills and a bottle of water, ready to take leave of this life. We only learn of his background though flashbacks, which focus on his wife Joan (Naomi Watts), a real estate agent who has supported him for years as he has struggled in his $20,000/yr. position to get published and gain tenure. We can see that their relationship is strained, but it's unclear why that would make her husband feel suicidal.

Deep in the forest, as Arthur begins taking the pills one by one, a disheveled Japanese businessman named Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe) happens upon him. The man is injured and nearly delirious, but he speaks English and Arthur learns that he is trying to find his way out of the "sea of trees," having come there because he didn't want to live, but now wanting to find the trail because he doesn't want to die.

Nakamura explains that he worked for a large company and was demoted because of a mistake he made. In his shame, he believed he had lost his place in the world and could no longer support his family. It's been two days since he stranded himself in the forest, which he calls "purgatory," haunted by spirits of the dead. Arthur puts aside his own troubles to try and help Nakamura find the trail back, but it's not that easy.

Knowing Van Sant, I had to assume this was about something more than two depressed men lost in mysterious woods. An allegory perhaps? A build up for a cross-cultural revelation? There is some discussion of God, which Arthur as a man of science has no faith in. But there's also a flashback to confrontation between Arthur and Joan, in which we learn he was unfaithful to her three years earlier. Still, there are lots of missing pieces to this point, just shy of half way in.

When Arthur falls off a stony ledge in the woods and hurts himself, the roles of the lost two men are reversed and it becomes a survival film. They have to scavenge clothes off dead bodies when theirs become ruined. We also learn that Joan developed a brain tumor and Arthur lost his interest in teaching. Still, why so suicidal? And why here in Japan?

Of course, there's a reason. And it is revealed to Nakamura at a campfire late one night, and through a flashback, but maybe too late. As I suspected, there's a bit more going on here than a "lost in the woods" tale. I just wish it could have been even more astounding; seemed like Van Sant stepped off the gas a bit. But the film still got him nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and it is certainly a srtong addition to his filmography in my book.

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