Saturday, January 12, 2008

53. Japanese director Naomi Kawase's "Mogari no mori" (The Mourning Forest) (2007): Resurgent Japanese cinema blending nature with traditional values

There are directors who write their own original stories and scripts and there are those directors who bring to the screen works of novelists, playwrights, and even biographers and historians. The directors who develop their own scripts are not just good filmmakers but arguably potential novelists or playwrights.

One such formidable director is Japan's Naomi Kawase. Her films win awards at prestigious film festivals following which the director churns out well received novels in Japanese based on her original film-scripts.

Today, like Kawase, there are exciting filmmakers such as Mexico's Carlos Reygadas and Spain's Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) and Pedro Almodovar (Talk to her/Hable con ella) who need to be appreciated as a breed apart from the regular directors who prefer to ride on the shoulders of other worthies. Kawase's The Mourning Forest, won the Grand Prize at the 2007 Cannes film festival. Many Western critics missed out on the loaded Asian/Japanese cultural subtexts in this remarkable film and even expressed surprise that it won the honor. After viewing the film at the recent 12th International Film Festival of Kerala, I applaud the Cannes jury's verdict.

The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) is a film that centers around a 70-year-old man with senile dementia (Alzheimer's disease?) living in an old age home in Japan—somewhat similar to Sarah Polley's Canadian film Away from Home. However, the two films approach the problem from totally different perspectives—underlining the cultural divide between Western and Eastern sensibilities. In both films, young people admire the values of the older generation. Both films are indirectly family films—underlining undying love for spouses. That's where the similarities end.

The Mourning Forest is a sensitive film tracing a senile old man's quixotic pilgrimage to his wife's grave in a forest interlocking a mystical relationship with nature. An old man with depleting memory is cared for by a young woman Machiko, a new nursing recruit, at the retirement/old age home. But her name, which has similar syllables to the name of his wife Mako, who died 33 years before, triggers a passion in him to visit her grave in a forest.On the 33rd anniversary, according to Japanese Buddhist beliefs, the departed must travel to the land of Buddha—somewhat like the Roman Catholic Christian belief of the dead reaching heaven /hell after a stay in purgatory. The time has come for the couple to part forever unless he bids farewell soon before the anniversary.

The Mourning Forest can be divided into two parts.

The first part introduces the viewer to the two main characters--the nurse and the nursed. Both have suffered personal loss and are grieving—the nurse has lost a child for which her husband holds her responsible; the nursed has lost his wife and evidently never remarried and keeps writing letters to his dead wife that must be "delivered." The nurse dominates the first part. We view the two figures chasing each other between rows of tea bushes, their heads clearly visible over the verdant green landscape. There is warmth of the sun. There is an allusion to life.

The second part inverses the earlier situation with the action taking place within the forest (a literal and figurative forest). The nursed dominates the nurse. The nursed tricks the smart young woman as he trudges to his wife's grave. Whether the spot is really her grave or not is of little consequence—the act of undertaking the pilgrimage is of consequence as he has to deliver his letters to his wife before 33 years of her death are completed. The forest covers the human figures (Compare the two scenes above). There is cold, darkness and mystical overflowing streams that threaten hypothermia. There are definite allusions to death and regeneration.

In an interview to a news agency, Kawase said "After the two enter the forest, the forest becomes the force that supports them. It watches over the two of them, sometimes gently, sometimes more strictly."

The film's title roughly translates as "Forest of Mogari" and at the end of the film the director states the meaning of the term "mogari." Mogari means "the time or act of mourning."

Unlike Away from Her, the Japanese film dwells on understanding the richer complexities of life and death. "Running water never returns to its source," says the old man Shigeki to his nurse, words of solace for a young woman to look afresh at her marriage after losing a child.

"If sad things happen, you shouldn't be sad about them or fight them, but vow to make the world a better place for children still to be born. That's my message," Kawase told the Reuters news agency. At the Cannes festival, director Kawase said she made The Mourning Forest because "her grandmother was becoming slightly senile, and today such people are looked down upon somewhat, and pitied, forgetting that it could happen to us someday." Kawase said she hoped viewers would learn kindness and a new way of handling difficulties -- which she said could help people around the world overcome religious and cultural differences.

The nurse strips off her clothes to provide warmth to her ward and protect him from hypothermia—an action that would seem unusual to Western sensibilities. There is no sex here; mere practical help in time of need. There are streams that suddenly flood as if they have a life of their own and emerge as characters in the film.

There is one Japanese film that is somewhat similar in spirit and content—the 1983 Cannes Golden Palm winner Shohei Imamura's Ballad of Narayama, where an active and economically productive old woman is forced to make a last trip up a mountain to fulfill local traditions and her consequent interactions with younger generations in the village. While Imamura used a famous novel to build a film classic, young Kawase has made a rich film using her own story. Kawase is treading in the footsteps of directors Terrence Mallick, Carlos Reygadas and Andrei Tarkovsky when the forest itself is suggestively transformed into a metaphor of memories and traditions, and eventually becomes a source of eternal strength. Kawase is encouraging us to reflect how we can take solace from nature when we face difficult times ("Running water never returns to its source"). Kawase represents the finest in contemporary Japanese cinema today, blending nature and tradition in storytelling.

P.S. The Canadian film Away from Her was reviewed earlier on this blog.


Rajaa said...

Dear Abraham

Yes, there are plenty of movies that make you think, and one of them that i have seen recently is The Idiot by Imamura, a japanese film-director.
I myself am a blogger on cinema and i wonder if we could exhange our views and ideas about serious cinema.I want also to republish some of your articles in my blog and of course i will refer to your blog and name .You are welcome to visit my blog and you may take pictures or articles you want.

Jugu Abraham said...

Hi "Allal",

You can contact me at

Jugu Abraham

Anonymous said...

This is the best review of Mogari no Mori ever, no doubt about it.

Thank you so much for this.