Suicide is a pressing issue in Japan, to the point it has become truly critical. The highly competitive society adds more pressure to individuals who find themselves unable to cope. And few movies manage to tap such a tricky subject matter as well as 'Jyukai'.
The movie follows several characters who for many reasons end up in the infamous forest near Mount Fuji, a location known as a hot-spot for suicides. It is an eerily silent place, thickly covered with trees and strewn with mementos of the dead. The movie conveys the atmosphere very effectively: for soundtrack there is the rustling of trees.
The narrative is fragmented as each character has their own story but they do intertwine in a natural and unobtrusive manner, just strangers that brush past one another on their way to death.
What makes 'Jyukai' so strong apart from the tight cinematography is the characters. They cover a whole spectrum of society, from a young woman stalking a married man, to a middle aged man who chooses to die because of his debts without forgetting a young man who is beaten up and dumped on the forest to die.
The movie manages to touch upon the multitude of ways that conspire to drive one to commit suicide. It is deeply rooted in the Japanese reality of loan sharks preying on lonely young women, on debts that snowball to the point people feel only their death can avail their family, to stalkers whose obsession ends up causing so much grief.
Interestingly enough the point of view is often unusual: we see through the eyes of a stalker how it feels to be so wrapped up in another person, we see that loan sharks can be as much victims as those they force into debt.
And despite the dark tone there are many chances of redemption. Some characters managed to move on and often with the help of others that are equally at a loss. Perhaps that is the main message, there is no one who knows precisely how to navigate through life but if we work together we can make it.
There is even a police investigation about one of the suicides. It sparkles all sorts of questions about suicide as a phenomenon but also as a personal choice that ultimately can never be fully explained because the one person who knows cannot tell. The moment is one of sadness but also nostalgia as we follow the girl's temporary happiness when Japan was playing in the soccer world championship. As a character points out perhaps she was happy because it was a time when everyone was together as one.
Subjacent to the movie is the idea that everyone is alone but the situation can be improved upon. The very sober approach with no melodrama at all lets these private tragedies shine for what they are, humans trying to deal with the world around them. There are highly moving scenes that border on absurdity like the young man who upon finding himself alive after being left for dead decides he might as well die after all only to leave the forest after taking care of the body of a hanged man.
'Jyukai' does not offer easy answers to such a complex problem. What it does do is show that it is indeed a complicated issue that results from social forces as well as individual choices. It is important in a Japanese context as self-reflection, very interesting to a foreigner for its insight into the Japanese condition and relevant to everyone for the way it tackles the contradictions of the human heart.
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