The Mourning Forest (dir. Naomi Kawase, 2007) observes Machiko (Machiko Ono), a grieving mother, as she finds herself on a journey with Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), a dementia patient at the nursing home where she works. Together, lost in the enclosed arms of a forest, they cope with personal loss. Kawase’s film is a slow and meditative gem of a film, entrenched in the beauty of the natural world––offering a quiet reflection on what it is to be living.
“Am I alive?” Shigeki asks innocently. “‘To be alive’ has two meanings,” responds the priest. “The first: Eating rice. And other food. What you do. So tell me, do you eat rice? Yes, you’re eating rice. Is the other food good? Yes, it is. That’s important. But there is another meaning. Having the sensation of living.” There is a certain silliness to Shigeki’s question, and to the priest’s response––a reflection on Shigeki’s childlike demeanor, an innocence brought to him by his dementia.
Moments of his youthful glee pepper The Mourning Forest; Shigeki climbs up a tree, falls down, and promptly runs away, being chased hide-and-seek-style by Machiko through a hilly agricultural field. His endearing childness is simultaneously disquieting; tantrums erupt into sudden violence, alarming in contrast to his otherwise subdued appearance. The fluctuation in Shigeki’s mood mimics the ebb and flow of their surrounding natural world; the wind gently rippling through a field of luscious green grass, juxtaposed by the roaring, violent stream of a running river.
Kawase’s film bathes in the natural world––boasting scenic imagery with a charming wonder akin to the beautiful landscapes of Studio Ghibli movies. The camera captures the experience of nature. Viewers are transported into the film’s scenery, moving along with characters as if existing in the same dimension. Blurring the line between documentary and drama, the hour and a half film takes its time, relishing in images and in silence.
The film is astoundingly wordless, emphasizing not dialogue but the environment’s soundtrack: birds chirping, cicadas buzzing, leaves rustling. One scene stands out in its wondrous amalgamation of soundscape and landscape: Shigeki steps into a seemingly gentle stream that quickly turns hostile, evolving into a rapid gush of water down rocky terrain. Machiko yells out for him, her cries louder and more desperate, her pain echoing as the waters intensify. The camera cuts to the incoming raging waters, their roaring synching with her cries, making them all the more alarming. We quickly realize that her cries are not directed towards Shigeki, but at her dead child. She agonizes, repeatedly: “I’m sorry.” Shigeki walks back to her, the shaky handheld camera at a kneeling position in front of her, listening as her cries fade. In a moment of tenderness Shigeki brings her to him, gently patting her head.
The raw emotion of the scene reverberates through the rest of the film. The Mourning Forest does not attempt to serve viewers a neatly wrapped parcel, instead it remains contemplative, allowing for Machiko and Shigeki to experience a sort of incomplete peace, coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones. Viewers are left in the same emotional limbo: Machiko plays Shigeki’s miniscule music box as he hums along gently, drifting on the forest floor. Machiko cries silently and lifts the musical box to the sky, her face erupting in a bittersweet grin. The lullaby gives way to the sounds of the forest, the camera drifting away from her and to the surrounding greenery. A moment in nature, contemplated in silence.