Drama Review: Nemureru Mori / A Sleeping Forest (Fuji TV, 1998)
Vivere disce, cogita mori – Learn to live; Remember death.
by Ender’s Girl
Nakayama Miho, Kimura Takuya, Nakamura Toru, Jinnai Takanori, Yusuke Santamaria, Natsuyagi Isao
In a Nutshell:
A 15-year-old crime casts a long shadow on a young woman whose lost memory of the incident returns with a vengeance. She meets a mysterious stranger, who vows to help her reclaim her forgotten past.
(SpoilLert: Major, major plot revelations!!! Proceed only if you’ve watched the ENTIRE drama!!!)
[Recommended companion track: “A Sorta Fairytale” by Tori Amos]
Once upon a Time, in a Faraway Land…
I enjoyed Nemureru Mori for the dark, modern-day fairy tale that it is: it takes the Sleeping Beauty archetype and gives it an urban-whodunit spin, setting it in 1998 Tokyo. But here the Sleeping in question is a psychological rather than a physical condition, as it is the Princess’ memories that remain submerged for a certain time period, to be Awakened by the Prince at the right Moment. (But who is the Prince, pray tell? Is there even one at all?)
When stripped of its more palatable, Victorian-era coating, the Fairy Tale is no children’s bedtime reading. I’m glad that Nemureru Mori feels less like Hans Christian Andersen and more like the earlier work of the Brothers Grimm, with the gore and the gloom and the, er, grimness not seen in their later (and heavily sanitized) versions. I welcome fairy tales in all their literary incarnations, in particular Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” a collection of retold fairy tales — dark, violent, sensuous and lushly romantic, but at times also bleak and terrifying.
The question, therefore, would be: If this is the story of Sleeping Beauty, who are the other characters? Who’s the Wicked Witch? The Fairy Godmother? The White Knight? But given the murder-mystery angle of Nemureru Mori you know that everything and everyone is immediately suspect — with the exception of Beauty, through whose eyes we watch the story unfold. So… could it be that certain characters in Nemureru Mori are actually composites of two or more of these fairy tale figures, who in turn may (or may not) be fundamentally disparate from each other (i.e. what if the Prince turns out to be the Big Bad Wolf?) — thus rendering them more ambiguous (but more interesting)? I’ve read enough crime capers and Agatha Christie mysteries to expect the unexpected and brace for twists in the plot. You try to second-guess people’s motives and anticipate the telltale signs that may (or may not) Mean Something Later On, those breadcrumbs in the woods that point the Way Out. And the woods of this Sleeping Forest have a beautiful, surreal quality to them, where time and space lose their real-world sway. It truly is an enchanted place, one both tranquil and threatening, a secret dream-garden where a long-forgotten evil lurks unseen.
The starting point of our story is a Christmas Eve massacre in a picturesque little town 15 years past. Beneath the snow-coated rooftops and steeples of churches, beneath the clear voices of carolers rising through the winter air, a gruesome crime has just been committed: the cold-blooded murder of three family members. The rain has washed away all traces of the killer, all evidence of his identity. Amid the flashing police sirens and crowds of onlookers, the body bags are carted into the ambulance one by one, the child Minako’s family — dead forever. That the carnage happened at Yuletide, of all times — is inconceivable, and yet the proof of this horrific deed is incontrovertible: the red stains against the snow, the bloodied corpses, the knife left behind when the murderer fled the scene. The 12-year-old girl Minako, the sole survivor of this nightmare, retreats deep into the darkness, her spirit broken and all memories locked away inside, in a place where even she dares not go. And through it all, the statue of the Virgin Mary at the nearby church remains the lone witness to this scene, her marmoreal countenance sphinx-like in dispensing either benediction — or judgment. And so our Fairy Tale begins.
Into the Woods
Fast-forward to the present: Christmastime is fast approaching, and Oba Minako (Nakayama Miho) has put the past behind her and now lives a normal life: she loves her job at the Orchidarium, she has a responsible and devoted fiancé, and despite that gaping hole in her memory, she has moved on, and she is happy. She looks forward to settling down with her beau Hamazaki Kiichiro (Nakamura Toru), who at 35 holds a well-paying job as Cultural Director for a top holdings firm, and is himself the son of a celebrated painter. But as Minako prepares to move into their matrimonial home, she finds a bunch of old letters among her childhood things. They date back 15 years, from a nameless sender who was then also a child — but one who was never Minako’s friend. He reached out to her only through the letters, as he was either too diffident to approach her, or was unable to — for some reason. The final letter ends with an invitation to meet in person in the forest of their hometown after 15 years have passed. Minako realizes that the date in question is just a few days away, and she impulsively decides to meet this person at the appointed time and place. The anonymous letter-sender’s connection to her forgotten childhood is what compels her to board the train back to her hometown where she has not lived for 14 years, and to the woods behind it. There she sees him for the first time, a strange young man named Ito Naoki (Kimura Takuya), lying in a hammock in a forest glade, waiting for her, knowing she would come. It is not a pleasant encounter: though a total stranger, he seems to know every single detail of Minako’s life for the past 15 years. His familiarity both shocks and intrigues her, and she flees the forest — but not before Naoki gives her a cryptic warning about the “cruel things” that await Minako, though he offers no explanation — and no relief.
So goes their first real meeting, though it is not their last. Minako returns to Tokyo, but meets Naoki again… and again, and again, at first as a pesky (but seemingly harmless) admirer, but he continues to intrude in her life — from “chance” encounters on the street, to finally moving into her neighborhood, right across her building. His ubiquity is unsettling, his intimate knowledge of Minako’s life downright terrifying. Before Minako’s very eyes he changes from Stranger to Stalker to Saboteur, and the inscrutability of his motives is just as disconcerting as the tenacity with which he forces his way into her neat little world. “You are a part of me,” he tells her on several different occasions, his voice ringing with challenge, as if daring her to prove otherwise. And with these six words, he stakes his claim on Minako — and binds her to him for life. Ito Naoki is certainly no fairy-tale Prince, but more like… The Mad Hatter, it seems in the first few episodes, as he leads Minako down the proverbial rabbit hole towards her Past. And in doing so, he acts as her gypsy Guide through the Underworld, for he’s as much an enigma as he is a vital piece in the puzzle, and you wish more than ever to uncover Who He Really Is in Minako’s life, Who He Was from her past. Then, as the story unravels bit by bit, you realize who the Princess’ Fairy Godmother in the tale really is: it’s a 25-year-old male lighting designer who sports long hair and wears a funny, floppy hat and a white trench coat.
As the heroine Oba Minako, Nakayama Miho (Love Letter) is mesmerizing in her beauty, and she’s everything you’d imagine a storybook princess to be. But some of her Pivotal Acting Moments sometimes left me cold, left me wanting more from her performance — particularly in those Big Revelation Scenes. It wasn’t that she did a bad job here, but I did expect more from her, especially since her character — Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty — is such a potentially complex role. For it is the Princess’ Awakening (after all, that is what Nemureru Mori is truly about) that grips you, and so you watch spellbound as Minako slowly unravels her past and sifts through all the repressed memories — learning which ones are real, and which were merely programmed into her. And in so doing, as her True Self is roused from its dormant state, she Awakens to the horror that has been lurking ever so near all these years, and that now seeks to consume her. Minako is every bit the Tragic Heroine, but her tragedy lies not in finally recognizing the horror, but in LIVING with the knowledge of who the killer is, and of who SHE really is. Her Awakening may have unshackled her from the murderer who would own her, but it does not set her free from the truth, which will haunt her to the end of her days. She (once again) narrowly escapes with her life, but forfeits true happiness in the process. That as a child Minako survives a grisly death — only to later live out this sadness that awaits her, may in fact be the unkindest fate of all.
Nakamura Toru as Hamazaki Kiichiro reminds me so much of Lee Jong-hyuk, who played the deliciously creepy Shin Hyun-tae in the 2005 Korean drama Green Rose (also a whodunit, though with a story less taut and more… ambitious). But I note the parallelism as a good thing, for both actors turn in performances so nuanced, and with this eeriness you can’t quite put a finger on. Both actors also utilize their greatest asset to the hilt (those eyes… those eyes!!!), those unfathomable black pools that glint with a strange light every now and then. Hamazaki Kiichiro cuts such an intriguing character, a silent-waters-run-deep kind of man who (ostensibly) represents the Princess’ Future as much as Ito Naoki is the link to her Past. He is rock-solid and dependable, and deeply in love with Minako. But as he is haunted by apparitions from a troubled childhood, and with his promising career besmirched by shady dealings, you wonder if Kiichiro is all that he seems to be.
[Interlude: On “With or Without You”]
At first, I must have let out a huuuge snort every time “With or Without You” started playing during the Naoki scenes. And it didn’t help, of course that Kimura’s getup — with that funny-looking fedora and shoulder-length hair — practically screamed BONO circa U2’s “The Joshua Tree” album days, hahaha. (Was he channeling Bono consciously? One wonders…) Admittedly, the whole atmosphere of the song (aside from the lyrics, obviously) is a perfect fit to Ito Naoki’s brooding obsession with Minako, “With or Without You” being the Ultimate Stalker Song after all, heh. But damn, I doubt I’ll ever listen to this track (one of my all-time faves) the same way again. That the drama played the instrumental version was a good move, because the U2 version would simply have been too distracting (not to mention the sky-high royalties that would’ve had to be paid). But after Nemureru Mori ended I played back the original song nonstop, and I doubt I’ll ever purge my head of those images of Ito Naoki every time Adam Clayton starts thrumming that iconic baseline against The Edge’s ultra-cool riffs and Larry Mullen Jr.’s solid pounding. And by the time Bono wails that all-too-familiar refrain with all the pent-up longing and anguish that only Bono can deliver, I think of bloody Kimura and that bloody fedora hat of his, and nothing else. (Okay, I have officially played this song on my iPod five times since I started writing this paragraph.) Damn, damn, damn. I also don’t have to say how those sexeh white tank tops fit KimuTaku 1.5’s body so. Darn. Well. (I see that someone’s been working out since Love Generation, eh? Heehee!) [/end interlude]
You really do feel ambivalent towards Ito Naoki at first, as it is well established what a Gray Area he is, with that knotty personal life and his I-don’t-give-a-sh!t attitude towards the world in general. He treats Yuri, his girlfriend of four years like crap, and refuses to commit to her emotionally despite their (dysfunctional) relationship. Naoki takes her masochistic devotion for granted, and ditches her right before going off to meet Minako in the forest that first time. That Yuri (the ill-cast Honjo Manami) acts the willing martyr doesn’t really make you commiserate with her plight, either. The one million scenes in the drama where Yuri goes over to Naoki’s pad to cook and clean and mend his socks or whatnot for him (when he CLEARLY DOESN’T LOVE HER ANYMORE), and then weeps quietly into her apron to make him feel guilty… dammit, but I could just feel my blood turn into curds and whey and all that gunk. She wasn’t a real person at all, just this robot-maid-sex-doll with matte lipstick and a really bad haircut. Gaahhh.
Naoki’s best friend from college, Keita (Yusuke Santamaria), has made it no secret of his love for Yuri, and yet must be content with perpetual second-fiddle status. A freelance writer by day, Keita is a compulsive gambler who’s had numerous run-ins with the loan sharks. He is treated by Naoki and Yuri with friendly affection, yet he knows that Ito Naoki will always cast a shadow over him — in looks, in confidence, in professional achievement, and in love. Keita tries to make light of the matter with his half-hearted jokes, but just comes across as this sad clown every time. Yusuke Santamaria is an adequate actor while Honjo Manami simply oozes… mediocrity, but the way both characters are written brooks no sympathy from the viewer, either. Second-rate second fiddles, indeed. Still, I took in the Naoki-Yuri-Keita scenes with more than just a passing interest mainly because it was a way of getting deeper into Naoki’s character. Little did I know how much these two people in Naoki’s life would later figure in some of the drama’s most crucial moments.
The Lost Boys
It is only when Ito Naoki’s past is revisited through flashbacks that you start to come to terms with his difficult nature and understand his bizarre obsession with Minako. When you finally meet him as that grave, shaggy-haired boy hiding in the woods, you understand how lonely and emotionally disconnected Naoki truly is — and has been, practically all his life. Always an outsider, always an observer, always watching from a distance. Even Naoki’s relationship with his father, Ito Naomi (Natsuyagi Isao in a wonderfully understated performance as… The Woodcutter, lol), the psychotherapist who programs new childhood memories into Minako, is a strained one, built on wary formality and emotional repression. With Naoki’s mother dead before the story unfolds, the father finds refuge in his research, while the young Naoki retreats deep in the forest, a flitting shadow playing amid the foliage, almost indistinguishable in the gloom. Ito Naomi’s interest in his own son’s life seems to find validation only in the psychiatric experiments Naomi conducts on his patients, who include the young Minako. With a clinical interest devoid of all fatherly affection, Naomi probes into his son’s mind, stealing fragments of thought and memory and dream — an afternoon playing Tarzan with a friend, or throwing a curveball in a baseball field — and transfers them into Minako’s own ravaged mind, thus giving her an artificially grafted database of recollections and past experiences that were never really her own.
Both Ito Naoki and Hamazaki Kiichiro lose their mothers at such a young age, and are left to contend with emotionally distant fathers who gain renown in their respective fields (psychology and painting) but remain abject failures at parenthood. Both father-son pairings reflect the same alienation and emotional disconnect that fester unabated for the rest of the boys’ childhood and most of their adult life. The boy Naoki longs to be intimate with his own father, but is incapable of expressing this wish to Naomi. It is only during the transference of his own memories to Minako through Naomi as a conduit, that Naoki can obliquely insert his own childlike dreams of becoming part of a real family again. But his father misses these cues (until it is rather too late), too caught up in his scholarly pursuits to notice the coded messages his son has been sending him during their interviews. And yet despite their emotional ineptitude both father and son share a deep loyalty towards each other, a familial bond that is more resilient than they both may think.
The kid actor playing Young Naoki nailed the character’s emotional isolation and awkward pain so beautifully that I wanted to hug that boy every. single. time. I just love him!!! And I love how the editing would juxtapose the Young Naoki flashbacks with some of the Grown-up Naoki moments, making you realize that although the boy is now a man, the eyes are unchanged after fifteen years and still mirror the same loneliness and deep-seated longing, the hungry look of a boy starved for love and affection and human companionship.
The Princess and The Mad Hatter
Naoki and Minako make an unusual twosome: they become more than strangers — but never lovers, involved as they are with other people. Their shared childhood memories make each person an irrevocable part of the other, and their mingled identities seem as surreal and inchoate as the strange bond that connects them. It’s a tenuous friendship at first, but Minako learns to overcome her distrust of Naoki and even develops a genuine fondness for him, although the romantic love remains one-sided on Naoki’s part (and oh, the pain it brings him!!!). Plainly you can see Minako’s attraction to Naoki intensified by the growing trust and dependence she places on him — as it becomes more and more clear that he is really out to protect her from all harm, whether far away or close at hand.
But when their relationship takes a shocking and irreversible turn, it is Naoki — and not Minako — who suffers more deeply from it. In the final act of the drama, you see a young man who truly has “nothing to win,” and “nothing left to lose” either, as the U2 song goes. For what do you do when the sole object of your 15-year obsession, whom you watched and followed and LOVED for more than half your life, turns out to be the Forbidden Fruit? — And your insatiable, all-consuming desire has become this shameful affliction overnight? When Naoki’s world comes crashing down, a small part of yours does, too. “Be happy,” he tells Minako on that Day of Days in the forest cottage — but you know that what he’s really trying to say is, “Goodbye.” So when Naoki chooses to start anew with Yuri, you HATE IT that he does so, but understand why. You know (and he knows) that what Yuri really is, is his Consolation Prize.
Portrait of a J-Idol as a Serious Actor
As much as I loved Kimura Takuya in those rom-com dramas (with his good-guy, Idol heroics and that ever-scintillating sheen of Ultra-Coolness), it was refreshing to see him play against type here in Nemureru Mori, as if all stops were pulled to make him as disturbing and disruptive a presence as possible in the life of Minako. As KimuTaku 1.5 (I call him this in his late ‘90s stuff, being some sort of transition state from J-Idol-Who-Can-Act to Real-Actor-Who-Happens-to-Be-a-J-Idol, they’re different you see), you can still see the rawness in his acting, marred occasionally by all that self-conscious hair-flipping, lol. But even without the polish and control so identifiable with his later work, his talent in Nemureru Mori is unmistakably there — particularly in the key moments of realization and revelation. There are glimmers of greatness in his performance, a foretaste of that Kimura Awesomeness I first came to love in Pride (my first Kimuradorama ever). As an actor, he’s got depth, he’s got intensity, he’s got that natural ability to play a character so effortlessly — AND make you believe in him. Aside from those awkward moments when he’d toss his soft, wavy tresses around as Ito Naoki (made me roll my eyes every single time: here we go again, I’d say… rinse, lather, repeat, lol), he delivered his lines and blocking with that spontaneity and easy command of his role that are trademark Kimura. There also is a dynamism to him, an irrepressible vitality in his persona that lends itself so well to his onscreen characters.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
By the third (and final) act of this drama, you get the feeling this isn’t the Sleeping Beauty account anymore, but that of… Bluebeard. The fairy tale premise has metamorphosed into a Gothic tale, one of unspeakable terror and the looming specter of Death. And the storyline is more labyrinthine than your regular whodunit, with so many nail-biting twists and turns I soon lost count. Each cliffhanger left me breathless, each blind alley made me retrace my steps and re-assess the clues so cleverly dropped along the way. Crime-solving is perhaps more deductive than inductive, because you begin with a certain premise, a certain angle, and then try to match the clues and evidence to this theory. But this drama throws you enough red herrings to make you doubt your earlier assumptions about the killer — after all, the main appeal of a good murder mystery is the thrill of the hunt leading up to the villain’s climactic unveiling. And the killer’s identity does not leave you SHOCKED so much as emotionally DRAINED. Though my original assumption about the murderer later proved to be correct, it was only after all that messing with my head had made me doubt… well, everything. (Damn those mind-screws!)
You expect the worst with these types of stories, but nothing prepared me for how deeply rooted the mystery was, and how far-reaching the consequences of the crime. The events set in motion 15 years prior end up entangling more people than were involved originally — even those with no material connection to the Yuletide killings. There’s also a sick symmetry to how the original murders are reprised in a fresh crime that is committed — with a different killer, but one of the same depraved mind and treacherous bent. In the fairy tale that is Nemureru Mori, what awaits the characters is no Happy Ending, but a wasteland of ruined lives and broken dreams. Everyone loses something — whether it’s their freedom, or their sanity, or their innocence, or their own life, or their future happiness. It is how the main characters’ lives (and identities) are changed forever that truly, truly breaks your heart.
This final act of Nemureru Mori just bled me dry; the story had consumed me inside out, leaving me numb. And just when I thought I had cried myself empty, I couldn’t hold back my emotions in the dying minutes of the final episode — showing Minako in that hammock and Naoki on that train, and the invisible, unbridgeable chasm between them. I wept at the cruelty of Life, how it deals people that “sleight of hand and twist of Fate” spoken of so poetically in the U2 song. Then you realize with a heart-stopping clarity that beneath the Sleeping Beauty tale lies another story embedded in Nemureru Mori, and it is that of Hansel and Gretel… Two children hand in hand, lost deep in the woods, who must find their way out of this strange gloaming of shadows and stippled light — before the darkness devours them both. That Hansel and Gretel are brother and sister is an irony not lost on the viewer: for as they stumble out into the open, the forest now behind them, a far crueler fate awaits, one that wrenches them apart and robs them of all happiness. Then our Fairy Tale is finally over: it is THE END, and as the storybook closes shut one last time, you are thankful that it is so.
Read no further if you haven’t seen this drama!!! (As if the review didn’t have enough spoilers already…)
Requiem for a Dreamer
It could’ve ended perfectly, really it could. But it didn’t. Because he just had to go f***ing DIE, like some diseased animal by the roadside. He died as he had lived: disconnected and alone.
Maybe I’m just stupid. Maybe my tear-blurred eyes failed to take in the *supposedly* telling clues indicating Naoki’s… worsening condition. Maybe despite being in its agonized throes, my mind still automatically precluded the possibility of an ending so… pointless, and so gratuitously sob-inducing. Maybe the writer of Nemureru Mori wanted this drama to go down as having the most WTF! finish in J-history, so he wrote it in. Or maybe I really AM stupid, that I didn’t GET IT right away — not even when that orange rolled off the seat and the flowers fell from his hands, or when the Young Minako Doppelganger kept looking back to see if he had alighted — but he never did — as the train chugged away from the platform. I simply thought that Naoki had made a sudden, CONSCIOUS CHOICE to distance himself from Minako by not going back home. THAT’S why the ending affected me so much, because in doing so, Naoki would still end up with NOTHING. But at least, if there was any good that would come out of it, it was that FINALLY, Naoki was going to start living for HIMSELF — not for his father, or for Minako, but for himself. To choose NOT to deal with the torture that would inevitably come if he stayed and forced himself to act all… familial and brotherly around Minako. If Naoki let the orange and the orchids slip from his fingers, if he slumped back in his seat and closed his eyes — what of it? I didn’t see a dying young man on the train, but one with a broken heart… and I thought that’s all there was to it.
That’s why I didn’t think right away that Naoki died. Those “warning signs” about his condition (presumably a subdural hematoma following the head trauma he sustained at the hands [and lead pipe] of Santa Claus), like the numbness and the dizzy spells and the decreased motor function — fine, they were shown in the drama’s last few episodes. But I still felt they weren’t built up significantly enough to service good storytelling. True, you can be asymptomatic and even feel fine for days to weeks without knowing you’re slowly dying from a massive clot in your brain. Medical fact. But in the hours leading up to your death, your condition should begin to manifest itself more acutely — i.e. something a BIT more severe than the inability to peel an orange properly. And even if there had been more indicators that screamed, “Naoki is dying!!! Final countdown — Naoki is dying!!!”… The question of questions remains… WHY.
So they kill him off? Just like that???? Why???!?? What PURPOSE would Naoki’s death serve in the drama? It was such a complete and utter incongruity against the rest of the story, such an unnecessary plot development, and nothing but a pointless exercise in emotional over-manipulation. Didn’t the drama have enough bombshells and Big Revelations packed in? Were the numerous twists and turns still inadequate for the writers? Hadn’t Minako already suffered enough pain and loss and grief????? And was Naoki’s death his just deserts for falling in love with his sister (though unwittingly so), as decreed by the Dramaverse’s Laws of Comeuppance?
Postscript: To the Faithful Departed
Naoki’s death was as senseless as it was poorly built-up. This felt like the Evil Twin of the Deus ex Machina plot device: meet the DEUCE ex Machina (devil out of the machine, haha), that smites down drama characters at whim, so that all your emotional investment gets nuked to kingdom come whenever the drama makers arbitrarily infuse a *little* bit more gloom and doom to the drama — just in case all those callous little b*tches of Jdorama fangirls weren’t, like, CRYING HARD ENOUGH by Episode 10. Naoki’s death felt like a frickin’ afterthought, like a sick prank the makers just decided to pull out of their wazoos. What happened here was a case of getting GREEDY with the WEEPY, and nothing more. They should’ve changed this drama’s title to A Weeping Forest — how’d you like that? Capricious and self-serving little pricks. Naoki should have lived. Naoki should have lived. Too late for that now.
Artistic & technical merit: B-
Entertainment value: B-
Vivere disce, cogita mori – Learn to live; Remember death.