Suicide Forest Village (2021) review

Introduction

All fans of Japanese cinema will know the films that made Takashi Shimizu a phenomenon during the J-horror craze. Yet, while most directors moved on to other genres after the craze faded, Shimizu ever straight to far from his love for horror cinema. In 2020, he delivered the pleasing horror-mystery Howling Village and now, one year later, he delivers the follow-up in the series: Suicide Forest Village.

Review

One evening, Hibiki Amasawa (Anna Yamada) witnesses how the live stream of youtuber Akina (Rinka Otani), who entered the Aokigahara forest to challenge the legend that no-one who entered can leave the forest, goes horrible wrong. While she is shocked by what she has seen, she is also immediately drawn to the mysteries that surround the forest.    

The next day, Hibiki is forced by her sister to help Akira Akutsu (Fuju Kamio) and Miyu Katase (Haruka Kudo) move into their new house. By accident, Hibiki discovers a hidden entrance under the veranda and Akira, upon entering the hidden room, finds a wooden box. Miyu and Akira, of course, want to open it, but their attempt is thwarted by Hibiki’s anxious voice ordering them to leave it alone. Yet, it does not take long for the box to take its first victim. Not long after that, Hibiki embarks, with fellow fans of the occult, on an exploration of the forest where Akina disappeared.  

Suicide Forest Village (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Shimizu’s Suicide Forest Village turns, just like its predecessor Howling Village (2020), around a familial drama and a family secret. Yet, the aspect of the familial drama does not take center stage but is slowly unfolded in the background as Hibiki’s mental state is explored.   

In other words, to be able to understand Shimizu’s narrative, the spectator needs to grasp Hibiki’s subjective state, a state marked by depression. Hibiki’s depressive logic is revealed by her need to isolate herself in her room and her reluctance to exchange signifiers with others, like with her mother Yuiko Amasawa (Hideko Hara) and her older sister Mei Amasawa (Mayu Yamaguchi) (Narra-note 1). She has, to put it more psychoanalytically, withdrawn her libido, her life-force, from the Other. Her subjective state of depression is also underlined by her fascination with the occult, death, and suicide – a fascination that, for example, compels her to watch Akina’s live stream. In other words, the remainder of her libido is unconsciously linked with her death drive. This formulation allows us to see that the fear that is so intrinsically linked with her fascination is not simply a fear of death, but a more fundamental fear of the very death drive that hides within her (Narra-note 2).    

Suicide Forest Village (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Hibiki’s restless nature, for that matter, is not only function of the interplay between fascination and fear, but also caused by her continuous confrontation with the emerging of her own death drive in her own surroundings. This mix between the psychological and the supernatural allows Shimizu to create an engaging riddle to build the first half of his narrative around. Some spectators might feel that the signals of death that Hibiki experiences are merely ‘projections’ of her unconscious death drive onto her environment due to her psychotic depression. Others might be led to think that the supernatural feeds on her depressive state and keeps on calling her to embark on the path of her death-drive (Narra-note 3, Psycho-note 1).

Even though this riddle receives a vague answer in the middle of the narrative, Shimizu ensures that the dimension of mystery remains present in the latter half of his narrative by using the subtle resolution to the first riddle to put other mysteries on the foreground: What is the true nature of the box? What is the relation between the box, Hibiki’s family, and the village in the forest?

The village in the forest and the cursed box, as become evident as the narrative unfolds, both find their origin in resentment. A resentment that is born from the suffering subject’s confrontation with the inability or even unwillingness of others/Other to hear nor accept their suffering. The path of suicide is, in this sense, destined for those who feel that the Other has left them at their own devices. This inability is beautifully illustrated by psychiatrist Nojiri (Muga Tsukaji) in the hospital where Hibiki is admitted. His reliance on psychological knowledge to approach Hibiki’s case does not only render him deaf for her subjective suffering but also robs her speech from its worth to be listened to. This subtle criticism of the psychiatric system and contemporary social bonds also offers another question for the spectator to consider: Will Hibiki succumb to such kind of resentment?

Suicide Forest Village (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Shimizu’s composition of Suicide Forest Village fluidly utilizes all the elements that allows a narrative to become a pleasant and engaging horror-film. By relying on fluid spatial movement, for instance, Shimizu is not only able to give his composition a pleasant flow, but also allows him to exploit such kind of camera-movement to play with the spectator’s anticipation and subtly heighten, whenever necessary, the tension.  

Shaky framing is also instrumental to heighten the tension, either directly or indirectly by emphasizing that something lurks in the shadows. The handy-cam sequence in the beginning of Suicide Forest Village is, in this respect, not only a nice cinematographical decoration but also an important element to give the legend of Aokigahara forest a certain believability and to ensure that the further unfolding of the narrative has the power to fully engage and, ultimately, unsettle the spectator.   

Of course, Shimizu also richly utilized static moments in his composition. Such moments are either used to emphasize disconcerting visual elements as well as to emphasize facial expressions, ranging from those absorbed by the extra-ordinary to those fully conquered by fear. In some cases, such kind of visual emphasis on facial expressions (or body-parts) is beautifully utilized to obscure some of the character’s surroundings, hereby pleasingly heightening the tension of the sequence and the sense of ominous mystery. It is a simple trick, but one that allows Shimizu to give the unseen its tangible disconcerting presence and that what remains hidden its threatening character (cine-note 1).

Suicide Forest Village (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

The effectiveness of Suicide Forest Village as a horror-mystery narrative heavily depends on the natural and darkish colour-and lightning design (Colour-note 1). By allowing the realm of the shadows reign the imagery, Shimizu has given the atmosphere of his narrative an irreducible gloominess – a gloominess echoing Hibiki’s depressive state. Yet, it is not the presence of this ‘elementary’ gloominess that allows the atmosphere of Shimizu’s Suicide Forest Village to become ominous and unsettling.

What allows the atmosphere to become unsettling is both the sinister musical accompaniment and the insertion of certain visual signals – all believable and mesmerizingly disturbing due to the quality of the practical and the special effects. Both elements ensure that, as times passes by, the mundane current of the narrative becomes disturbed, giving the realm of darkness the power to make the spectator uneasy and feel threatened.

With Suicide Forest Village, Shimizu has not only delivered a worthy follow-up, but also a mystery-horror experience that is, in all aspects, better than Howling Village. It might fall short of reaching the heights of psychological-horror classics like Kurosawa’s Cure (1997), but Shimizu nevertheless proves that he has mastered the visual grammar of horror and understands that horror and societal criticism are, in most cases, two sides of the same coin.   

Notes

Narra-note 1: The main purpose of Hibiki’s headphones is to close herself off from the signifiers of the Other whenever it is needed.

Narra-note 2: Later in the narrative, the event that caused Hibiki’s descent into depression and made her fascination/fear with death and the death drive blossom is touched upon. The event, without spoiling too much, concerns her mother Kotone Amasawa (Yumi Adachi).

Narra-note 3: Both perspectives provide an explanation as to why only Hibiki can perceive certain disturbing visual signs. Yet, if others would start seeing or hearing disturbing things, the first perspective loses its plausibility.    

Psycho-note 1: We should note that the diagnosis of schizophrenia Hibiki is ultimately given does not fit her subjective state very well. Spectators need to understand that the element of mental illness is not meant to be a truthful representation but a narrative element to give the narrative some depth and complexity.

Cine-note 1: In other cases, such focus on facial expressions is utilized to heighten the disconcerting character of things that only the character can perceive. The face full of horror is, in these cases, the only indication of the horrifying nature of the object.  

Colour-note 1: One exception to this rule is the handy-cam sequence in the first half of the narrative. Yet, this sequence, despite not being darkish at all, does play an instrumental role in infusing a threatening character in the realm of shadows that marks most imagery.

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