The Mourning Forest (2007) by Naomi Kawase

Machiko (Machiko Ono) has recently started work at a nursing home for the elderly in rural Kansai. It is revealed in flashback that she has lost a young son in an unspecified accident after letting go of his hand, something for which her partner cannot forgive her. One of the care home residents, Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), is a man struggling with dementia whose wife died thirty-three years ago. Shigeki struggles with outbursts of emotion and anger, especially when Machiko attempts to move his bag. A priest visiting the home tells them that thirty-three years after death a person will become one with Buddha, and therefore will be unreachable by the living. Machiko and Shigeki develop a relationship that grows warmer as time progresses and she decides to take him on a day trip. When the car breaks down, the two are stranded in the countryside. Shigeki leads her on a long hike through the woods, during which they both process their grief.

“The Mourning Forest” is a heartfelt look at death and the effect it has on those left behind. It is explained later in the film that “Mogari” (in the Japanese title) refers to not only the period of mourning, but the place of mourning. For Machiko and Shigeki, the journey through the forest is a metaphorical journey through grief to acceptance. We learn little about Machiko’s son and Shigeki’s wife, and there is a palpable emptiness at the heart of the film that perfectly captures the feeling of bereavement. The sequence in which Shigeki plays a duet before being left along with the plaintive notes of his solo melody ringing out in the dark perfectly typifies this sense of loss following the death of a loved one. The performances from Machiko Ono and Shigeki Uda are raw and believable. Machiko is a character putting a brave face on her loss, attempting to find reason for living. Even in his confusion, Shigeki senses that something is missing from his life. The priest early in the film explains that living has two meanings, not only physically existing but feeling and experiencing things. It is often the case that people close themselves off from the world following the passing of a loved one. In their arduous hike through the forest, Machiko and Shigeki, experience hardships and suffering as well as positive moments, and it is all of these combined that contribute to a sense of living. The film features some stunning cinematography, particularly in the shots of the natural world, whether a butterfly hovering above a stream or the towering trees of the forest. There is a gentle piano score that compliments this sense of a rural idyll, and a natural world that can be both beautiful and terrifying.

The film will not be for everyone. At times it is slow and ponderous, often with little dialogue, focussing on the cinematography, score and acting to tell its story. The dark themes, of loss and mourning, also make it a tough watch. However, the film’s gentle contemplation of death is handled well and the beautiful direction and superb acting make it worthwhile for those looking for something with deep meaning and resonance.

We are Little Zombies (2019) by Makoto Nagahisa

After Hikari’s (Keita Ninomiya) parents die in a bus accident, he meets three other children at the crematorium who have likewise lost their parents, through suicide, murder and in a house fire. The four form an unlikely friendship, united by tragedy, and head out without any real plan of what they will do next. They return to each of their homes in turn, recovering items they have left behind, and reliving the circumstances of their parents’ deaths. While sitting around in a slum building populated by homeless individuals, they decide to form a band and are picked up by a talent scout who happens by while they are performing. As the “Little Zombies” they soon enjoy huge popularity with the disaffected youth of Japan, but it seems as though not even stardom will puncture their sense of detachment from the world around them.

“We are Little Zombies” is a film with a dark sense of humour, beginning from the opening scenes at the crematorium. While most films dealing with bereavement would show an emotionally tumultuous coming-to-terms with loss, this film takes the polar opposite approach. Instead it shows the characters, especially Hikari, as completely unphased by what has happened, unable to cry over his parents who were cold and distant in life. Instead he is permanently lost in the otherworld of his handheld video games. Likewise, the other characters deal with their situation stoically, death having seemingly little consequence for those who are left. Writer/director Makoto Nagahisa shows huge creativity in this idiosyncratic film, with the use of a digital 8-bit soundtrack and camera angles giving the feel of a  videogame (at times even cutting to game graphics that represent the four main characters). There is a sense that anything could happen as characters talk direct to camera, dream sequences and inner monologues interrupt the action, and fantasy increasingly intrudes into their realities. As the film progresses, the bizarre situations only increase. This sense of anarchic surrealism is in keeping with the youthful protagonists. They look on calmly as the world about them grows increasingly strange. The songs are catchy and the jokes are good. The four leads (Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Okumura Mondo, and Sena Nakajima) do a fantastic job, oddly compelling in their unemotional response to their parents deaths and charismatic in their interplay as a group of friends. The music, composed by the director, is great, playing on everything from videogame themes to loops of shop music and classical pieces.

The film takes an unconventional approach to the themes of loss and grief. The characters all seem emotionally detached from the world, whether because they genuinely lack compassion or are struggling to come to terms with their experiences. The loss of their parents has untethered them from the usual coping mechanisms of children. They are all at sea and rather than dealing with the death of their parents they have isolated themselves emotionally. However, this comes at the cost of a loss of direction. They live for minor accomplishments, similar to those achievements of video games. The structure of the film, as “stages” and “missions”, highlights this lack of an overarching purpose in their lives. It is in the end a film that is about life and what people live for. The deaths early on are a stark reminder that there is in the end little purpose to life in itself outside of what people can create for themselves. “We are Little Zombies” is a quirky film, revelling in its black surrealist humour, but with a great deal of heart beneath the surface.

Isn’t Anyone Alive? (2012)

A group of students at a medical hospital start to succumb to a mysterious sickness that kills within a few moments. As they die coughing and spluttering, their friends grow worried that they will be next. The disease strikes without warning and without any apparent cause. We are introduced to several characters early in the film. A group of friends who are planning for a wedding; a pregnant student who is discussing with her former lover and his new partner arrangement of child maintenance payments; and the waiter taking their orders. There is a man looking for his sister who works in the hospital; and a man whose infatuation with her has yet to find voice. There is also an odd couple, Yama and Dr. Fish, fleeing the scene of a train accident.

This blackly comic tale has a bleak and unforgiving premise that makes for a tough watch. It displays a cold detachment from the characters that leaves the audience with a feeling of being an uncaring observer. The conversations between the characters throw up a few funny lines and much of the humour in the latter half comes from their inability to deal effectively with death. Their minor obsessions pale in comparison to the ultimate fate that awaits all of them. Unfortunately, much of the work of unravelling the film’s meaning is left to the viewer. It offers few insights into the human condition, and sadly and ironically seems to care little for the characters. It is a series of ultimately insignificant events culminating in death. It never feels as though it fully develops its premise into anything more meaningful for the characters or the audience. To put a more positive spin on things, the film does have a punk sensibility in its nihilistic outlook. By failing to explain anything it is almost challenging the audience with the inevitability and inexplicability of death. However, it must be said that this would be more enjoyable if there were at least some interesting things done with the deaths. The film is based on a stage play and this shows in the framing of many scenes, with a few characters engaged in what appear to be small comedic vignettes. The film fails to take advantage of its form until the final moments. When we see the incredible sunsets, birds and planes falling from the sky and the wreckage of the train crash, it comes close to being worthwhile, but it is a big ask to sit through the rest of the film for these moments of striking visual poetry at the end of it all. The cast (including Shota Sometani and Mai Takahashi) all do a decent job with their roles, but the script falls a little flat. The occasional use of music offers a sense of momentum that promises more than the film eventually delivers. Another missed opportunity is in the film’s use of occasionally blacking out certain portions of the screen. This is an example of visual flair that, had it been used less sparingly, could have enlivened the rest of the film.

“Isn’t Anyone Alive?” looks at the problem of death. The characters are all young people, largely unaffected by this and the film seems to be challenging its audience to take the idea of mortality seriously. Many of the characters remark that they should think carefully about what their last words should be. There is an aside about a character who should have professed his love for a woman before his untimely demise. The film offers little comfort in terms of a philosophy to deal with death or any sense of purpose in the characters. It could be argued that this film is intended as a slap in the face for shallow youths who do not understand the importance of life, but I feel its message could have been delivered in a more entertaining way.

Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

Futaba Sachino (Rie Miyazawa) lives with her daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki). The bathhouse they used to run is now closed after her husband (Joe Odagiri) ‘vanished like steam’ a year ago. When Futaba is given a devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer she goes to find her former partner, who is now living alone with his daughter Ayuko. The two come to live with Futaba and Azumi and they re-open the bathhouse. With little time left Futaba endeavors to set her affairs in order, uncovering a family secret and making sure that the two girls are taken care of.

Written and directed by Ryota Nakano, “Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a poignant yet uplifting story about the value of kindness. There are as many moments to make you smile as to weep and it treads a delicate balance between sentimentality and realism. All of the characters are given a backstory, however small, and the script does a good job of weaving together various subplots into a coherent narrative. The entire cast do an admirable job of creating believable family dynamics. Rie Miyazawa is a caring and compassionate mother dealing with the shock of her sudden illness. Remaining strong for her children, while displaying an inner turmoil and sense of loss, the character of Futaba provokes real empathy and love for her determination. Hana Sugisaki shines as Azumi, dealing with her own problems at school and later taking on responsibilities for many of the other characters. She is a mirror to Miyazawa’s kindness and strong-willed nature, while also retaining an independent spirit. Out of all the characters she undergoes the greatest journey, from shy and awkward schoolgirl to a confident surrogate mother to her family. The rest of the cast are all excellent, particularly Aoi Ito as Ayuko, who does an incredible job with very emotionally challenging material. The direction of the film is good, allowing the actor’s performances to shine. There is interesting use of cut-aways, to the chimney of the bathhouse, which may also resemble a crematorium chimney, or blue skies with clouds floating by. Discussion of the afterlife in the film is minimal, largely revolving around one young character whose mother is deceased. Religious notions are largely superceded, explicitly at the end, by a more humanist philosophy amongst the characters, that the reality of everyday love and joy is something that should be cherished over a belief in heaven.

“Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a moving portrait about life and family set against the backdrop of an imminent death. This prognosis early in the film sets everything in context for the audience, although certain characters remain unaware of it until later. However, it is not a film that dwells on death so much as an examination of the joy of life. Although there are powerfully emotional scenes, there is also a lot of subtle humour and tender moments between mother and daughter or the two sisters that emphasize the idea that life is precious and each moment has the potential for joy. The film features several characters who are without a mother, though cared for by other characters. The importance of parental affection from those other than the biological parents is an important theme. This is generalized more widely into the notion of the paramount importance of kindness in society. Futaba’s relations with everyone she meets are typified by this more than anything, her ability to forgive, and her resolve to keep going through adversity. In the final section of the film we see this kindness repaid by those she has touched. An emotional film that is a celebration of the best of human nature, a plea for kindness in a world of misfortune.