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 the Aokigahara Forest also known as the Sea of Trees, located at the base of Mt Fuji in Japan. It is widely regarded that the humans visit this forest to end their life (I am refraining from using the word ‘Suicide’).
What has brought him to this state and what transpires in the Sea of Trees is what this movie is about.
The Movie (Spoilers Ahead)
Arthur is a scientist who now works as a Physics Teacher at a middle school for a paltry annual salary of 20 grands. Arthur’s wife Joan is a functional alcoholic, played by Naomi Watts. She believes that Arthur is not fully realizing his academic prowess and potential to earn a much higher pay-packet. It is her dominant pay cheque that is supporting the family.
In the forest, while Arthur is about to end his life by sipping down a handful of sleeping pills, he hears the cry of a Japanese man, Takumi Nakamura, played by the ever-present Ken Watanabe. Takumi is lost in the jungle and he is bleeding from his wrists. Takumi got demoted in his job, and is hating life because it has reduced to bits and pieces in his perfunctory surroundings.
The main cause of Arthur and Joan’s estranged relationship is when we learn that Arthur had an affair with a fellow colleague in his previous job as a scientist at NorthLabs. Arthur and Joan’s marriage is on the rocks, but a moment of reconciliation presents itself when they are shocked to learn that she is suffering from a brain tumor, which has fifty-fifty chance of survival within and upon surgery. Joan despises dying in a hospital where she is surrounded by strangers who are just there to do their job. She wants Arthur to promise her that he would die in a place unlike hers. This is what brings Arthur to the Sea of Trees, a tranquil environment surrounded by nature.
Initially Arthur was disinterested, not wanting to halt his plans. But later, Arthur becomes determined to help Takumi out of the forest, who is sick and badly hurt. While they were finding their way out of the forest, Arthur injures himself multiple times. Once by falling from a rocky cliff, and then by going into a cave which fills with water from a cloud burst. Arthur notices a beautiful flower amidst his dead surrounding. Takumi tells Arthur that as per Japanese mythic, when a spirit passes by, the flower blooms.
Post-surgery, the doctor tells the reconciled couple that the tumor was non-malignant. This brings relief to the couple, who are now ready to move on with their life by burying their past.
While trailing back, Arthur and Takumi takes the clothes from a corpse hanging from a tree. From another corpse lying in a tent, they take its compass, radio, torch, lighter and the clothes. Arthur tries to contact the local authorities, but doesn’t find signal.
During the night, Arthur breaks down when he tellsTakumi that he was so busy finding faults in his marriage that he never cared to know Joan’s favorite book, season or color. Takumi silently sobs while listening to Arthur.
Takumi tells Arthur that their search for the trail that would lead them out of the woods is like the children’s story 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 gets killed in a fatal crash 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. Joan 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. Arthur leaves him near the tent to find help and a way out of the forest. He wraps Takumi with the jacket gifted to him by Joan. He then reaches a location where is able to make contact with the local authorities. When he reaches the entry point to the forest, he is again injured when he trips over a log. The alerted forest guards finds him lying in the woods and rescues him.
During a post-trauma recovery interview, Arthur asks the Counselor about Takumi whereabouts. She tells him that no one entered the forest on that fateful day, other than him. This fact was corroborated by the CCTV footage which is located at the forest’s entrance.
Arthur later learns that Joan’s favorite book was Hansel & Gretel. He was carrying the package with him when he came to the Sea of Trees. The book was gifted to Joan by her relative.
Two weeks later, after Arthur is fully recovered, he trails back into the forest to search for Takumi. He takes special measures to not lose his way in the forest. He reaches the site where he left an ailing Takumi, but he is not there. Instead, he finds the jacket gifted by Joan covering the flower which he found earlier in the forest. He realizes 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, we often tend to miss 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 was the ideal opportunity for him to break away from 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 own 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 thus, he was crying profusely, while Arthur broke down as well.
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. 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.