When Japanese horror cinema broke internationally from the late 1990s, it was largely through the work of three directors: Hideo Nakata via the iconic Ring (1998), Kiyoshi Kurosawa with the films Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), and Takashi Shimizu with The Grudge (2002). While Nakata and Kurosawa both expanded into a broader range of films, Shimizu has maintained a directorial focus on horror throughout his career. His subsequent works have included Marebito (2004), Reincarnation (2005), and Shock Labyrinth (2009). In 2019 he directed Howling Village, the first in a thematic trilogy of supernatural horror films. Suicide Forest Village, released two years later, is the second.
It is a film about two sisters, orphaned when their mother died 13 years earlier. Mei (Mayu Yamaguchi) is studious, sensitive, and helpful. Hibiki (Anna Yamada) is sullen and withdrawn, hiding out in her bedroom while participating in Internet chats about ghosts and supernatural phenomena. Hibiki also becomes fascinated with the notorious ‘suicide forest’ after a social media influencer goes missing there. When helping some friends move house, Mei and Hibiki discover a mysterious wooden box under the new home. Hibiki is immediately afraid.
Any more and one would risk spoiling the secrets behind Suicide Forest Village. This is an exceptional horror film from a director who has repeatedly demonstrated a talent for showcasing the creepy and inexplicable, and who has a gift for ratcheting up tension until it is inescapable. This is a slow-burn experience. It is patient in revealing the full circumstances of the story, and in filling in the deliberate narrative gaps. It is a structure that may feel slightly frustrating at first, but Shimizu’s inventive premise and haunting atmosphere make the film more rewarding as it goes.
It feels like a bold progression in Shimizu’s style as well. The Grudge confirmed his skills in presenting the sort of creepy supernatural imagery that dominates Japanese ghost stories. With Suicide Forest Village he shifts gears towards some excellent body horror as well, revealing a penchant for disturbing imagery reminiscent of indie film master Shinya Tsukamoto. The two styles blend together marvellously. At first this new work feels like a solid re-iteration of well-travelled ground. As it develops, it showcases a surprising level of originality. It is 20 years since The Grudge; Suicide Forest Village demonstrates Shimizu has not been resting on his laurels.
It is also interesting to see him handle the so-called ‘suicide forest’. Aokigahara is a real-life forest on Mount Fuji’s north-west flank, which since the 1960s has become known as a popular suicide site. While its reputation on the Internet seems exaggerated, it has not stopped the Japanese government from erecting signs at the forest’s entrances pleading with visitors not to take their own lives. While the forest has certainly captured the attention of American artists – notably in Gus van Sant’s Sea of Trees (2015) and Jason Zada’s The Forest (2016) – it seems appropriate that its most effective and powerful use would be by a Japanese director.
This is an excellent horror film. It is immediately reminiscent of a generation of J-horror classics, while staking enough new territory to feel fresh and relevant for a contemporary audience. A third Village film is due this year. Given the quality of this second instalment, that has to represent a win for genre fans worldwide.