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Vol. 7, No. 6, 2008
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Robert J. Lewis
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Maria Full of Grace
Man Without a Past
In This World
Buffalo Boy
Shake Hands with the Devil
Born into Brothels
The Edukators
Big Sugar
A Long Walk
An Inconvenient Truth
Sisters In Law
Send a Bullet
Banking on Heaven
Chinese Botanist's Daugher
Ben X
La Zona
The Legacy
Irina Palm
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Poor Boys Game
Finn's Girl
Leaving the Fold

naomi kawase's



reviewed by



Jugu Abraham is a film critic at Dear Cinema. He gave The Mourning Forest, which played at Montreal's 2008 Festival Nouveau Cinema, 3 out of 4 stars. For the ratings for the entire festival, click HERE.

There are directors who write their own original stories and scripts and those 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 after which she churns out well received novels in Japanese that are based on her original film-scripts.

Prior to playing at Montreal’s 2008 Nouveau Cinema Festival, The Mourning Forest won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) centers around a somewhat senile 70-year-old man, Shigeki, who is living in an old age home in Japan, in a situation not unlike Sarah Polley’s Canadian film Away from Home. Shigeki, played by Yoichiro Saito, is cared for by a young woman, Machiko, a new nursing recruit. Her name, which is similar to Shigeki ‘s wife’s name, Mako, who died 33 years before, triggers a passion in him to visit her grave in the forest. And thus begins a quixotic pilgrimage to the grave in a perilous journey that will unlock man’s mystical relationship with nature.

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 couple will have 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, Machiko, has lost a child for which her husband holds her responsible. The nursed (the old man) 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 since the act of undertaking the pilgrimage is what matters as he has to deliver his letters to his wife before 33 years of her death are completed. In contrast to the tea plantation scenes, the forest towers over the human figures Instead of sun, there is cold, darkness and mystical overflowing streams that threaten hypothermia as well as allusions to death and regeneration.

As Kawase explains, “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 into “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.

Kawase states that the fate of her cognitively declining grandmother inspired the making of the film. “Such people are looked down somewhat, and pitied, forgetting that it could happen to us someday.” Through her film, she hopes viewers will learn kindness and a new way of handling difficulties, which she says can 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, a gesture that must 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.

Kawase has made a rich film using her own story. In treading in the footsteps of directors Terrence Mallick, Carlos Reygadas and Andrei Tarkovsky, the forest is transformed into a metaphor of memories and traditions, and eventually becomes a source of eternal strength. Kawase represents the finest in contemporary Japanese cinema today, blending nature and tradition in storytelling.
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