Thoughts on “The Forest” and Mental Health

On January 8, 2016, U.S. theaters premiered The Forest, a horror movie about the Aokigahara forest in Japan. Also known as the “Suicide forest” or “Sea of Trees,” the forest is well known worldwide as a place where many go to commit suicide. The film, which stars Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer, fared moderately well, making $22.4 million as of January 17 against a budget $10 million.

This isn’t the first horror film that has been made with mental health or suicide as a central through line. Films like Shutter Island and Sucker Punch have made topics like manic depression and schizophrenia attractive plot points for horror, thriller and action movies.

Nor is it the first movie or media representation about the Aokigahara forest, which has been portrayed in numerous films, video games, and novels. Throughout many of these representations, the forest is depicted as alluringly mysterious, almost mythic, due to the suicides that take place in it.

But let’s get something straight: we don’t need another horror movie that exploits suicide as a convenient storyline and uses a very real epidemic as a mere tool for plot advancement.

The Forest’s use of the Aokigahara forest as the phantasmal backdrop to a Western horror film perpetuates the stigma against mental health specifically as it relates to Japanese and to Asian and Asian American communities as a whole. It fictionalizes and horrifically glorifies an epidemic that Japan has struggled to address and Japanese people face daily.

What’s more is that The Forest is steeped in Orientalism, thereby not only exploiting but silencing the suicide epidemic in Japan. The premise of the film is presented through the lens of a white woman who, despite being warned by the Japanese characters in the film, ventures into the forest to save her suicidal sister. In this way, the film relies on the silencing of the Japanese characters so that the white woman’s view of the forest is shaped by her own ignorant perceptions of  “foreign” terrain, effectively “Other-ing” the forest and Japanese people.

So, in sum, The Forest not only eroticizes the Aokigahara and the things in it, but it also fails to recognizeand, quite frankly, blatantly ignoreswhy the forest exists.

Mental health is a taboo topic in many Asian communities that is often shamed into silence. If The Forest is not going to talk about mental health in a meaningful or respectful way, here are some facts to provide context behind the mental health and suicide epidemic in Japan:

  • Suicide has long been “glorified” in Japanese history, but Japan is desperately trying to combat this stigma. Called seppuku, suicide has historically been viewed in Japan as an honorable way of taking responsibility rather than as a selfish act. The Japanese government has committed itself to undoing this view and drastically reducing the suicide rateand it is effectively doing so, with suicides hitting an all-time low in the past 18 years. However, Japan still claims more suicides than any other developed country in the world.
  • Mental health problems are impacting the country so heavily that businesses are being obliged to check the mental health of their workers regularly. As a potential solution to an increase in stress and mental health disorders nationwide, Japanese workers will be required to take a test once a year, with questions about their stress levels and workloads. Furthermore, employers will not be allowed to fire or punish workers who indicate high stress levels on this test. Rather, they will be required to reduce workers’ stress through decreased hours and an improved work environment.
  • Mental health is affecting Japanese youth as well, as evidenced by Japanese “invisible youth,” a group of teenagers called the “hikikomori” who refuse to come out of their bedrooms. Most “hikikomori,” which means “withdrawn” in Japanese, are male teenagers who are burdened by societal and parental expectations to succeed. Speaking to this weight of expectations is the fact that more Japanese teens commit suicide on September 1before the first day of school in Japanthan on any other day of the year.
  • The cultural stigma against mental health also heavily impacts Asian Americans, who are less likely to seek help when it comes to mental health. For example, Asian stereotypes, such as the notion that all Asians do well in school, can perpetuate the mental health stigma and the view of Asians as the “model minority,” thereby adversely affecting Asian Americans’ perceptions of mental health.

The Forest turns the lived experiences of others into fabled non-issues. Many audiences are already calling boycotters of the film “crybabies” or “too sensitive,” as shown in the dissenting comments on Love Life of An Asian Guy’s heated post about the movie.

But if what sells is the blindly contemptuous portrayal of a serious and fatal problem, it’s time to reassess our behavior and valuesnot only as moviegoers or media consumers, but as empathetic humans.


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