The Warped Forest (Asatte no Mori)

Japan (2011) Dir. Shunichiro Miki

Q: When is a sequel not a sequel?

A: When it is a spiritual sequel.

Similarly crazy, The Warped Forest is the spiritual sequel to 2005’s surreal compendium Funky Forest: The First Contact, a collection of random skits about stuff. One of its three directors, Shunichiro Miki, went solo for this much shorter, slightly more comprehensible but still absurdist outing.

Unlike its discordant predecessor, there is something akin to an overarching plot, or at best a coherent premise to link the rambling events featuring the denizens of a small rural village. This common denominator, if I’ve understood it correctly, is having dreams and wondering what life would be like if they were attained. A rather standard idea but executed in a most non-standard way.

It begins with three men in a onsen guest room who are shocked to learn they disappeared two days earlier, despite not moving from their room and having been there for a couple of hours. One of them a teacher, did mention that three of his students told him they had been transported to a strange forest but he didn’t believe them. But it seems to be true – the newspapers are dated two days later, and the onsen staff had already booked the room out to three sisters.

Because this is a whacky film, this prologue of sorts is in black and white whilst the majority of the remainder of the film is in colour. This actually has a purpose since it seems to denote two worlds – possibly a dream world and reality, the monochrome being reality perhaps a reflection on how dull real life can be whilst the lands in our dreams are full of colour, excitement, and no logical boundaries.

We meet Apli, (Fumi Nikaido) the youngest of the three sisters from before. She trades currency called pocos – pinecones and nuts – for a hi-tech gun which…actually I’m struggling to describe so I won’t. Anyway, Apli causes concern for the way she earns her pocos, but she is not the only one as eldest sister Au Lait (Kanako Kawaguchi) causes a few curtains to twitch by harvesting and selling the anatomically designed Kattka fruit.

Kattka fruit, in keeping with the film’s priapic obsession, are the sweetest fruit which grow not on trees but on wood nymphs – naked women with branches and roots that bear the fruit. Au Lait hydrates the nymphs orally, instantly making this film far superior to its forbearer, but has caught the eye of the owner of the onsen, whose wife (Rinko Kikuchi) is as scatty a box of frogs.

Meanwhile, the third sister works in a tiny store that she can barely fit in, and has a tiny boyfriend who is mistreating her. Elsewhere, the teacher in the opening runs a bakery with “Lovey Dovey” bread which he worries makes people think he is gay. Despite being married to a woman (Kikuchi in a different role) having an affair with his assistant, he sneaks off to a bespoke brothel which satiates his needs via – you guessed it – with a strange sucking creature.

Finally the three students from before are slackers, one of whom falls for Apli, and are the key architects is exploring the possibilities of “dream tinkering”, made possible by a strange obelisk like object that demand pocos to “warp” people away to a desired world where wishes come true. Though not explicitly explained, there appears to be a relation to the obelisk with the large black inverted triangles hovering high above the village.

Erotic fruit, women who bare said fruit, time warps, alien creatures, giant people in tiny shops, this could be a dystopian future for the perverted, and in Miki’s mind it probably is. This shouldn’t be a surprise since I am sure most men with the option to create or at least wish for their utopia will have some kind of prurient leaning to it somewhere. In fact in the final act where the three men petition the obelisk, two of them have women on their mind, one asks for everyone to be happy. Awww.   

However, there is still something I found confusing which is, if the colour scenes are the dream world, where to the character go when they warp? Or do they warp into the black and white world and that is the dream? The climax sort of ties things up by bringing the six trios together and obliquely implies the dreams have been fulfilled for an unexpected feel good ending, and not a lurid fruit or reproductive organ in sight.

Discerning what it all means and what Miki was hoping to say or achieve with this film often feels redundant unless you happen to be on his wavelength, which I am imagine is an exclusive club – the game cast notwithstanding. By dint of being a series of vignettes held together by a shared concept rather than a linear narrative, some audiences might be put offside right away, yet each individual thread has a beginning, middle and end, so is it really that difficult to follow?

As the saying goes, mileage will vary, but there is a case to be made for the potential of the story not being met by opting for an obtuse and surreal style of presentation. But here is an interesting fact about this film – this Blu-ray release is he first commercial release of its kind anywhere in the world; even in Japan, it only screened in a few small indie film festivals.

The burning question therefore is, was Miki dissatisfied or unconfident in The Warped Forest, or were so few people receptive to it that a wider release was deemed worthless? It’s a moot point now as Third Window Films have shared it with the world, and it now has an audience, albeit one divided as to whether it is arcane nonsense or absurdist genius. Anyway, I’m off to find myself a wood nymph!

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