Over a two-decade career, Takashi Shimizu has rarely strayed from the horror genre that made his reputation, beginning with the “Ju-on” series about deadly ghosts in a Tokyo suburban house.
In his latest, “Suicide Forest Village,” he shows he still knows the tricks of the trade, though the psychological depths and signature style found in the work of fellow master of horror Kiyoshi Kurosawa elude him. Also, Shimizu has never come up with another iconic character like the creepy, crawly Kayako from “Ju-on.”
The sinister, death-dealing wooden box that plays a central role in “Suicide Forest Village” is disturbing enough, at least initially, but this and the film’s other jack-in-the-box scares do not, like Kayako, linger in the imagination.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||117 mins.|
To his credit, Shimizu creates a nightmarish forest world that reminds us why, in certain lights and moods, tree branches can look like clawing hands and the trees themselves become ominous beings that threaten and loom.
It helps that his main setting is Aokigahara, the so-called jukai (sea of trees) at the foot of Mount Fuji that has become notorious as a magnet for the suicidal. It has also inspired several films, including the widely panned 2015 Gus Van Sant drama, “The Sea of Trees.”
With its lumpy, moss-covered volcanic surfaces and dense growth of spindly, twisted trees, Aokigahara is forbidding and creepy, though the urban legends that have grown up around it, which the film regards as sober fact, are pure fiction (at least one hopes).
The story, which unfolds cryptically and elliptically based on Shimizu’s co-written original script, focuses on two sisters, Hibiki (Anna Yamada) and Mei (Mayu Yamaguchi), who have lived with their kindly grandmother (Hideko Hara) since their beloved mother (Yumi Adachi) passed away 13 years earlier.
Hibiki, a socially isolated teenage girl, belongs to an online group interested in the supernatural. But after one of the group members kills herself in Aokigahara, strange things start happening to Hibiki, including a shocking encounter with the aforementioned box. Soon, the first of the film’s fatal accidents, which are not so accidental, unfolds.
Though older and outwardly normal, Mei is also drawn into the box’s vortex, as are her friends and even a temple priest, who tries to exorcise its vengeful spirits in one of the film’s more skin-crawling scenes.
Then, after committing an apparent crime, Hibiki has a mental breakdown and Mei ventures into Aokigahara, where she intends to end the box’s reign of terror once and for all.
Meanwhile, a gloomy older man (Jun Kunimura), who drives around the forest to rescue the suicidal, serves as a knowledgeable explicator of its lore. From him we learn of a time, now long past, when the mentally and physically disabled were taken into Aokigahara and abandoned. They, or rather their ghosts, now live in a “village” in the forest depths. But what does that have to do with the box?
There is more to this bizarre, over-the-top tale, much of which recalls “Matango,” Ishiro Honda’s 1963 sci-fi classic about man-eating mushrooms on a tropical island, though Shimizu’s telling is closer to cooked-up folklore. Those who venture into his “sea of trees” will not drown, but they just might be devoured.
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