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The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

Oddly enough, having now seen two films by Japanese director Naomi Kawase, I can say that the filmmaker that she most recalls for me is master animator Hayao Miyazaki. Like his animated films, Kawase's live-action work has a meditative outlook, allows space for the pleasures of nature, and is deeply immersed in Japanese culture. The Mourning Forest, Kawase's latest, strikes me as a mild disappointment after the revelatory experience that was her Shara, but, whatever its shortcomings, it certainly doesn't betray the sensibility that I so admired in that masterpiece.

Things start promisingly. The pre-credits sequence, which cross-cuts between a funeral procession, ritualistic preparations, and impressive landscape shots while a minimalist piano score builds, is no small achievement. Once the film begins proper, the movie finds itself still on sure footing. As we're introduced to a group of residents and caretakers in a senior citizens' community, Kawase starts introducing a series of philosophical concerns, setting up the journey that fills the second half. Life, death, mourning and guilt are the topics at hand here, but what's refreshing is how the director manages to bring up such subjects while not denying her characters a sense of spontaneity or pleasure.

Even though it's less strikingly casual than Shara was, Forest is structured so that it has plenty of room to breathe. At the filmís end, it is revealed to have been pretty deterministic, but it never feels that way while you're watching it (itís much like Shara in that regard). Repeated like a mantra throughout are the words "There are no formal rules, you know". They clearly seem to inform Kawase's stylistic approach. She's partly such a strong filmmaker, even when working in a decidedly minor scale, because she's able to recognize the difference between being sentimental and simply being alert to emotions like love, fun and loss. Ultimately, The Mourning Forest is not so much flawed as it is unable to create a very powerful impression. One or two scenes, such as a river crossing in a downpour, are exciting crystallizations of the filmís themes, but the exceptionally contemplative nature of the film makes it a long, somewhat dull wait for some form of cathartic release.


Jeremy Heilman