Watch a Documentary on the True Story Behind The Forest

By  · Published on January 6th, 2016

Gramercy Pictures

A lot of horror movies purport to be based on a true story. The idea is appealing to moviegoers for ghosts and haunted houses and exaggerated serial killers to really exist in the world, because it makes for a scarier experience. Personally, I don’t see why you’d want to continue being scared after you leave the theater, but I’m not your average horror fan. In fact, I wouldn’t even call myself a horror fan at all.

Still, I am intrigued about the new horror movie The Forest, in part because Natalie Dormer is such a cutie but mostly because I am fascinated by its real-life inspiration. While not narratively based on a true story, The Forest is set in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, aka the “Sea of Trees” (Jukai), and has to do with the location’s association with suicide. In the movie, Dormer plays twins, one of whom is looking for the other after she disappeared in Aokigahara.

There have been other movies set in the “Suicide Forest,” as it’s also known. Just last year, there was the latest, booed-at-Cannes feature from Gus Van Sant, The Sea of Trees, which stars Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe as two men who separately go to the spot to kill themselves, then they meet, talk and (I think) reconsider. Others, like The Forest, involve paranormal elements – the angry spirits of those who died in Aaokigahara.

Unsurprisingly with such a fascinating and controversial background, the forest is also the subject of documentaries, though only one of them is of note. And it’s a short. Titled Aokigahara: Suicide Forest and directed by Santiago Stelley, it’s a 21-minute Vice Media production and that’s really all the time that’s needed to give the back story and a tour of the place. Documentaries that are just about something should never be very long.

Vice Media

This one follows a geologist who works locally in environmental protection (he studies volcanos), and he’s familiar with how the dense Aaokigahara was created out from the cooled lava of a long ago eruption of Mt. Fuji, which towers over the area. He addresses the history of honorable suicide in his country and discusses why more and more people in Japan may be killing themselves, in the forest and in general, in recent years (30,000 per year). And he guides us, via Stelley, through the Sea of Trees to find bodies.

Not knowing what we might find is one reason why the doc is possibly more terrifying than The Forest. We do see images of people hanging from trees, as well as skeletal remains of others who’d gone previously undiscovered, the bones still wearing the clothes and of the deceased. Other remnants left behind by who knows who are found throughout, making it at least a very haunting film. It’s easy to see why people believe there are ghosts there.

As far as I can tell, it’s not the job of the geologist, Azusa Hayano, to be an expert and tour guide for Aaokigahara, but he does seem to take on the role frequently. He served the same purpose for a photographer whose experience was profiled in the New York Times, for example. He also may not be responsible for either telling campers to leave the forest or trying to persuade them and others not to kill themselves. But he does both.

I wish we got to understand Hayano a little better, but he’s not the focus here. He merely provides the context needed as we explore and become spooked – by the real deal and any fictional horror films exploiting the Aaokigahara for entertainment value. Whether or not you plan to see The Forest, watch Aokigahara: Suicide Forest below to get a sense of its origins and maybe find enough nightmare fodder from it.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.