The most popular place in the world to end it all is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The vertiginous 75-metre drop ensures most jumpers die on impact with the water below; drowning and hypothermia claim the rest. Britain’s own Beachy Head, where Phil Daniels’ scooter met its symbolic end in Quadrophenia, comes in third. But it’s the silver medal holder that’s the focus of a new film, funded in part by the New York Foundation of the Arts.
The Aokigahara forest covers an area of roughly thirty-five square kilometres at the base of Mount Fuji. The trees crowd together in high density, obscuring sunlight and wind. This, along with a lack of fauna within its confines, gives rise to a crepuscular calm, an unearthly stillness that resonates throughout the forest. The area has demonic associations in Japanese mythology, and over the years has steadily built its reputation as a ‘good place’ to die. In one year alone, 108 suicides were recorded in the forest. The Japanese government has since ceased publishing figures in an attempt to downplay its morbid fame.
Into these gothic surroundings steps independent artist and film-maker, Joshua Zucker-Pluda. “Can a landscape have a soul? Can past events leave a psychic impression on a terrain[…]?” These questions are his jumping-off point for a haunting piece of experimental documentary film-making, reminiscent of Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick, treading/blurring a line between environmental psychology and paranormal investigation.
Zucker-Pluda first came to my attention through his Roadside Picnic podcast, an intermittently updated ethereal journey through the abstract outer reaches of modern music. Since its first episode in 2005, the podcast has built up a cult following and spawned a series of limited edition vinyl box sets titled A Room Forever. A sense of otherworldliness pervades every aspect of the project, from the choice of sounds to the dark, minimal layout of the website and the accompanying photos, each image showcasing Zucker-Pluda’s preoccupation with landscape and the ability of his lens to make the familiar appear strange.
This aesthetic has been expanded upon in his latest film project The Sea of Trees, which takes its name from the Japanese nickname for Aokigahara. The film, which has received funding from the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA), the New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA) and the Jerome Foundation, features some startling footage of the forest itself, mixed with interviews and anecdotes from numerous sources. The film is currently in post-production, having successfully raised the funds via a concerted campaign on www.kickstarter.com, and from the looks of the sample footage released so far it’s shaping up to be a breath-taking piece of film-making.