Japan’s Aokigahara Forest (also known as the Sea of Trees) is a bizarre and fascinating cultural phenomenon – a secluded spot where scores of people go each year in order to commit suicide. (A Daily Mail article places the number at up to 100 each year.) In Robert James Russell’s atmospheric novella, Sea of Trees, the author explores the forest’s allure, following an American college student, Bill, and his Japanese girlfriend, Junko, as she searches for some sign of her sister, who went into the forest a year earlier to commit suicide and never returned.
The progress of Bill and Junko throughout the day highlights cultural as well as gender differences as they search the forest for signs of where her sister had been. It is these differences which shaped my experience of the story, but which, unfortunately, left me feeling a bit disconnected from the author’s purpose. Throughout the book, Bill appears bored, exasperated, and aroused by Junko (often within the span of moments), while Junko is determined and frustrated by Bill’s lack of focus. As her mental state deteriorates throughout the day, I found myself unsure whether she was going crazy or had finally gotten fed up with her lout of a boyfriend and his awkward ploys to get her to give up the search and go home to have sex with him. His lascivious thoughts at a serious (and, let’s be honest, really creepy) time felt so out of place, I was more concerned for his mental state throughout most of the book. I suppose this ambiguity offered an additional layer of interest – the human story behind the greater picture of the forest’s mystique – but it left me rooting for Junko, even as it became clear that she was not as sane as she had once seemed.
Each chapter is interspersed with vignettes of other people who had come to the forest and committed suicide. These stories were, for me, even more compelling than the main storyline, nicely capturing the desperation and downward spiral of people who, in the end, were unable to handle life. My only complaint about these stories is that, at the end of each, the featured character dies in the forest, always sure that they had made the best decision, at peace and without pain (despite some truly horrific deaths) as they gently drifted off into what was clearly the best choice they’d ever made. I understand that cultural differences and selection bias might mean that these people truly were happy to die, but it left me feeling uncomfortable (and wishing a bit for one of the signature Aokigahara signpost disclaimers described in the book: “Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Think about them.”).
A word of warning: should you, like me, find yourself interested in learning more about Aokigahara forest after reading this novella, be aware that there are some extremely graphic images on the internet. Google seems to think that blurring out the face on a corpse makes it appropriate for a “Safe Search,” a point on which I must disagree. It was interesting, however, to note that many of the images online coincide with the stories told within Sea of Trees, leading me to assume that Russell read those same articles and was inspired to tell what he imagined to be their stories.
In the end, Sea of Trees was an interesting, if a bit disjointed, look at a subject that was rich for exploration. Russell’s writing effectively sets the scene, evoking the creepy atmosphere of the forest as well as Junko’s slow unraveling. I wasn’t surprised by the ending, but I did find it to be a satisfying and logical way of finishing the book’s trajectory, and I grew to have more connection with the characters (yes, even Bill) as the story went on – not an inconsiderable feat given the short 100-page length of the book. Given that this is a debut novella, I wasn’t expecting perfection, but it delivered an interesting, unsettling read and proof that Russell is not afraid of treading uncomfortable ground in search of a good story.
Katie Mehas is a writer, editor, and left-brain artist (rarely spotted in the wild). She’s worked in magazine publishing and radio, had an R-rating slapped on her senior thesis art show, and was once laid off from her job via Facebook while on her honeymoon in Croatia. She and her husband live in Florida with their hermaphroditic chihuahua and three cats. Follow Katie on Twitter (@KTMehas) and find out more here.