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.