At least Arthur Brennan didn’t want sushi, an AKB48 concert or a night out on the town with a maiko (trainee geisha) on his arm. As Japan’s ranking soars on the international travelers’ destination lists, the more cliched their itineraries seem to get. But Matthew McConaughey’s Brennan of Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees,” has an entirely different mission in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Booking a one-way ticket out of Massachusetts and carrying nothing but a bottle of pills, Arthur is obsessed by a single facet of Japan: Aokigahara — a notoriously dense forest at the foot of Mount Fuji. A few days earlier, he had googled “the perfect place to die,” and “Aokigahara” blinked at him from his screen. As he’s told later, “People come from all over the world to die here.” Obviously this is not a movie that the tourist board will be proud of.
Aokigahara is so remote and thick with trees that if someone wanders off the path inside, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get out. There are signs posted along footpaths, exhorting people to reconsider whatever reason they may have to enter, and to turn back. Some do, but many remain determined, and before they know it, it’s too late to change their minds. The preferred method of suicide for those who have lost all hope is poison. It goes without saying that there’s no mobile phone reception, no distractions.
All this is just what Arthur was looking for, and so he drives to the airport, leaves the keys in his car and boards the plane.
“The Sea of Trees” is Van Sant’s latest feature movie after “Promised Land” in 2012. Van Sant isn’t known for being a Japanophile or even a Japanese movie fan, which makes this film seem out of left field. Why Aokigahara? We are also unlikely to find the answer to that question any time soon, since the director has distanced himself from the project since it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year. So far, no specific plans have been announced to open the film elsewhere other than in Japan, though the Japanese distributors say it’s likely the movie will see a European release not too far in the future.
Opening in Japan before anywhere else seems logical considering the locale and the formidable presence of Ken Watanabe as McConaughey’s co-star. Still, it’s a little strange that Van Sant has refused to offer any comment about a U.S. release, and the Japanese production notes provide zero explanation of his reticence. But then the movie itself hasn’t exactly warmed the hearts of Western audiences. “The Sea of Trees” was panned at Cannes, with several critics actually walking out of the screening. In Japan, however, a story about Aokigahara is in keeping with national culture, and it’s something perhaps audiences here may relate to. The forest has even been written up in the underground bestseller “Kanzen Kistasu Manyuaru” (“Perfect Manual For Suicide”).
McConaughey commented online and in the production notes that this is a “life-affirming story,” but it’s hard to see any evidence of that during the first hour of the film, and anyone expecting positive vibes will be sorely disappointed. The film does carry some classic Van Sant hallmarks: Much of the screen time is taken up by two men in deep conversation, charting their separate inner journeys with flashbacks and spoken memories. Van Sant has an ear for what men say to each other, and when it comes to the one-on-one between Watanabe and McConaughey, the dialogue (written by Chris Sparling) offers up a lot of fascinating segments.
Unfortunately, those are often obscured by confusion and distractions. Almost all the location work was done in Massachusetts, in a place aptly called “Purgatory Chasm,” and you can see right away that it’s not Japanese trees and foliage up on the screen. True, Van Sant and the crew did go to the area around Mount Fuji for some of the filming, but the bulk of footage was taken on the other side of the globe. Other inexplicable incongruities include Watanabe’s character Takumi Nakamura, a typical salaryman who just lost his job, speaking flawless English — a coincidence that is never explained and wouldn’t be so strange if the rest of the Japanese cast didn’t also have impeccable language skills. A doctor at a Yamanashi hospital, a young woman therapist, rescue-team workers — everyone sounds like that they studied at a nice East Coast university and could moonlight as English teachers.
“Ultimately, a foreign filmmaker has two choices when it comes to making a movie with a Japanese setting,” says Shigenori Aizawa, a film promoter and distributor turned film journalist who was at the screening of “The Sea of Trees.” “They can either blatantly pretend that what they’re filming is Japan when they’re actually on location in New Zealand or someplace much easier to work. Or, they can hire a local crew, a local cast and shoot the whole thing in Japanese. The latter obviously feels authentic but it’s less likely to wow audiences back home.”
Over the years we’ve seen “The Last Samurai (2003) and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) become successful representatives of the former camp of filmmaking in Japan. In the latter, there’s been the “Tokyo!” omnibus series (2008) and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love” (2012). The hugely popular “Babel” and “Lost in Translation” are masterful blends of the two, while Isabelle Coixet’s “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo” (2009) is intriguing in that the protagonists move through Tokyo but manage to make it seem much more sensuous and exotic than it really is.
Lucy Craft, who works for CBS News in Tokyo, has said of foreign film crews looking for Japanese settings: “Japan is a place to escape and reinvent yourself. It’s so far from anywhere and so different, that a complete life alteration seems possible.”
In “The Sea of Trees,” both “life alteration” and “life termination” gently collide and then separate. Arthur may have got on the plane to experience both.
“The Sea of Trees” opens nationwide on April 29.