Not everybody who goes to Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest, takes their life. Amidst the dense trees, rubbish and abandoned camps run lengths of tape, unspooled by those considering suicide, but still unsure enough to want a path out. In many ways it seems like a tether back to the world they want to leave behind, a lifeline out of the thick, isolating forest, and the depression or dark reasoning that’s driven them there. Many people never follow the tape back out, though some do.
Azusa Hayano is a geologist, local of the area, and focus of the documentary Suicide Forest, which follows him as he patrols Aokigahara for bodies, remains and the undecided. He’s a kind, deep-thinking man, whose optimism hasn’t been tainted by the macabre nature of his work. One thing puzzles him though, which is why people choose to take their lives in such a beautiful place.
Aokigahara was popularised as a suicide destination following the publication of Seicho Matsumoto’s Kuroi Jukai in 1960. In the novel, a young love commits suicide in the forest; since then, up to 100 people each year attempt the same. It would be easy then to frame this in terms of the romanticised idea of suicide that runs through Western literature, stories like Romeo and Juliet or The Sorrows of Young Werther, where young lovers take their lives as an ultimate show of desperate devotion, but to do so would require an insensitive ignorance to the different cultural context in which these suicides take place.
Hayano himself only lightly touches on the subject, drawing a quick parallel to seppuku, the ritual suicide practiced by samurai facing capture or dishonour. His only comment is that there’s no such thing as a heroic death by suicide.
Hayano acts as a kind of opposite force to the forest. Aokigahara, which sits at the base of Mount Fuji, is dense with vegetation. It’s an isolating expanse, and that seems to be part of its attraction. Other than the runs of tape, the forest swallows anyone who passes beyond the suicide prevention notice at its entrance, isolating them further. Hayano, however, holds the firm belief that nobody actually dies alone. We’re all connected, through our relationships and our shared experiences, and it’s our duty to take care of one another.
His philosophy is never more obvious then when he stumbles across a camper, who he is certain is in the forest to take his own life. Their interaction is brief, but Hayano knows that all it sometimes takes is one small gesture, and interaction with the world outside to begin the process of drawing a person out of their isolation, and out of the forest. This is the kind of small but important gesture an initiative like RUOK? Day is built off, and the results can often be powerful.
Suicide Forest can be sometimes harrowing and confronting viewing; some viewer discretion is definitely advised before going in. But amidst the discomfort and the bleakness of the subject, Hayano beams as a point of optimism and insight. Even at our most isolated there are ties that bind us back to the community; Hayano reminds us how simple it can be to remind someone of that.
In Australia, we’re right in the middle of the Christmas season, a time that’s notorious for an associated spike in suicide rates. During a time of big spending and grand gift-giving, it’s important to be reminded of the power of small kindness. We really are all bound to each other, and sometimes it doesn’t take much to show someone to the tape that leads them out of the forest.
Suicide Forest airs on SBS VICELAND on Thursday 22 December at 9pm.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14