The Sea of Trees is a marvelous movie by the man – Gus Van Sant, who helmed critical darlings such as Goodwill Hunting, Milk, Elephant and many more.
I was glad to watch the movie before going over to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. Otherwise, by being a true social conformist, I would have missed a gem.
What is this movie about?
The movie is about the exploration of relationships and its meanings through a journey within and after-life. The movie is true to our present times.
Matthew McConaughey plays Arthur Brennan who arrives at Aokigahara Forest also known as the Sea of Trees, located at the base of Mt Fuji in Japan. It is widely known that people visit this forest to end their life.
What brought Arthur to this state and what transpires in the Sea of Trees is captured in this pulchritudinous movie.
The Movie (Spoilers Ahead)
Arthur is a scientist who works as a Physics Teacher at a middle-school for a paltry annual salary of twenty grands. Arthur’s wife Joan is an alcoholic, played by Naomi Watts. She pesters Arthur by stating that he is not fully realizing his academic prowess and potential to earn a much higher salary. And that is her dominant pay cheque supporting the family.
In the forest, while Arthur is about to end his life by sipping down a handful of sleeping pills, he heard a wailing Japanese man, Takumi Nakamura, played by the ever-present Ken Watanabe. Takumi was lost in the jungle, and he was bleeding from his wrists. Takumi got demoted in his job, and hated life, since it reduced to bits and pieces within his perfunctory surroundings.
Arthur and Joan’s marriage is on the rocks due to Arthur’s affair with a fellow colleague in his previous job as a scientist at NorthLabs. A moment of reconciliation presents itself, when both are shocked to learn that Joan is suffering from a brain tumour, which has a survival rate of fifty percent, before and after surgery. Joan despises dying in a hospital where she was surrounded by strangers who were just there to do their daily job. She wanted Arthur to promise her that he would die in a place unlike hers. And to keep this promise, Arthur came to the Sea of Trees to die, a tranquil environment surrounded by nature.
Initially, Arthur was disinterested, not wanting to halt his plans of retiring his life. But later on, seeing Takumi struggle with pain and flailing morale, he became determined to help him out of the forest.
While trying to find their way out, Arthur injures himself on multiple occasions. Once by falling from a rocky cliff, and then by going into a cave which gets filled with water from a cloud burst. Amidst all these life-threatening situations, Arthur manages to notice a beautiful bloomed flower. Takumi tells him that as per Japanese myth, when a spirit passes by, the flower blooms.
Post-surgery, the doctor informs the reconciled couple that the tumor was non-malignant. This brings them relief, and they were now ready to move on with their lives by burying their misbegotten past.
While trailing back, Arthur and Takumi takes the clothes from a corpse hanging from a tree. From another corpse in a tent, they take its compass, radio, torch, lighter and some clothes. Arthur tries to contact the local authorities via the radio, but doesn’t find any signal.
During the night, Arthur breaks down when telling Takumi that he was so busy finding faults in his marriage that he never cared to know about Joan’s favorite book, season or color. Takumi silently sobs while listening to him.
Takumi tells Arthur that their search for the trail out of the woods represents the children’s story of Hansel & Gretel. He also shares the names of his daughters – Kiiro & Fuyu.
Joan tells Arthur that she would like to spend the remainder of her life with him in their picturesque lake-house. He gleefully agrees.
While getting transferred from the hospital to a nursing home, Joan is killed in a fatal accident, when a pickup truck collides with her ambulance. Arthur goes into a state of shock when he witnesses the horrific accident. He was following Joan’s ambulance while talking to her on the phone. The couple’s last conversation pertained to their favorites. She was unable to share the details of her favorite book, color and season.
Takumi becomes gravely ill and is unable to tag along with Arthur any further on foot. Arthur leaves him near a tent, and goes in search for help and ultimately finding their way out of Aokigahara. Before he left, he covered Takumi with his jacket which was gifted to him by Joan. He reaches a section of the forest, where there was signal and he was able to connect with the local authorities. Before reaching the forest entrance, he gets injured again when he trips over a log. The forest guards were alerted when they hear him wail from the injury. They finally found and rescued him from the forest. While barely conscious, Arthur kept pleading them to fetch Takumi from the forest.
During a post-trauma recovery interview, Arthur asks the Psychotherapist about Takumi’s whereabouts. She tells him that other than him, no one else entered the forest on that fateful day. This fact was further confirmed from the CCTV footage, placed at the forest’s entrance.
While recovering in the hospital, he finally opened the package which he carried throughout his entire trip to Aokigahara. It was Joan’s favourite book, Hansel & Gretel. The book was gifted to Joan by her close relative.
Two weeks later, when Arthur fully recovered, he trails back into the forest to search for Takumi. He took special measures by looping thread-lines, circling tree trunks to not lose his way in the forest. He reached the place where he left an ailing Takumi. But it was vacant, his jacket being the only remnant. Upon lifting the jacket, he noticed the same bloomed flower, which he had noticed earlier, along with Takumi. He realised that Takumi was a wandering spirit, who helped him out of the forest.
Back in his school, a student tells Arthur that Takumi’s children names – Kiiro & Fuyu translates to Yellow and Winter. The favorite color and season of Joan.
Why I find this movie to be great?
In the beginning, when Arthur arrives at the Forest, he is already dead. The act of gulping down the sleeping pills was a mere metaphor of his present state. Once he is out of the Forest, he attains after-life. The old Arthur has died in the forest. This change is reflected in his appearance. When he comes to the forest, he is unshaven, disillusioned, and doesn’t eat the food offered by the flight attendant. But when he attains after-life, he is clean-shaven, has come to terms with Joan’s death, and eats the breakfast offered by the flight attendant.
The movie captures the challenges faced by most present day marriages – money trouble and infidelity. It is the smaller details like the favorite color, the favorite season or the favorite book of a partner, is often missed, because we are so caught up with our lives. Marriage of today is the vox populi to avoid social alienation, even though the persons married are leading distant lives while sharing the same bed.
Loss brings us closer to what we dearly miss. It is Joan who realized that Arthur has been silently going through the motions of their marriage, even when she meted out harsh treatments to him. By accepting her harsh treatment and not giving up on their marriage, it was his way of repenting for his infidel past. He didn’t leave her side when she faced a life-threatening situation. It could have been his way out of the marriage, but it was his love for her that held him back. When Joan realized this, she forgave him and promised to be with him in life and after-life. Through Takumi, she stopped Arthur from taking his life.
Arthur misunderstood Joan when she wanted him to promise that he wouldn’t die like her in a hospital, a place where strangers are there to do their job. A place so functional that everyone is going through their motions, even life and death. She wanted him to die in the company of their memories – The Lake House, and not the Sea of Trees.
The Sea of Trees was a portal between life and death, where she was able to communicate with Arthur in her after-life, through a fellow spirit – Takumi. When Arthur was sharing his story of Joan, Takumi felt her pain, and therefore, crying profusely.
The Sea of Trees is holding up a mirror and showing us that just like Arthur’s state when he came into the forest, the trees in the forest are slowly going to fade away as we attain further industry. In a few decades, there will no longer be a Sea of Trees, only patches of green. But still, we have to move on. That’s the human nature, the law of the land. Like Arthur finally moved on after Joan’s death.
Why I don’t agree with the critics?
Most of them have written that the movie is formulaic, and the plot is jarring, with no build-up to the twists. But hey, so is life. We don’t expect our life to throw up surprises. It is the smaller details that we miss every day. That is what the movie represents and what the critics missed.