Little Forest: Film Review

This little-known gem from Japanese auteur Junichi Mori sweeps you away to the gorgeous landscapes of rural Japan for a soulful meditation on life.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Title card. © Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (screengrab).

It is genuinely surprising how little attention these beautiful set of films from Junichi Mori have received over the years (albeit a Korean remake came out this year). Mori’s original Little Forest came out in two parts, Little Forest: Summer/Autumn in 2014 and a year later, Little Forest: Winter/Spring in 2015.

Based on a slice of life manga series written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi, Little Forest tells the tale of Ichiko (Ai Hashimoto), who after being unable to find her place in the city returns to her hometown Komori, a rural village in the mountains of the Tōhoku region, to lead a solitary life farming the land and living in accordance with the changing seasons.

Ai Hashimoto plays the protagonist, Ichiko. © Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (screengrab).

Divided into different parts based on the different seasons – summer, autumn, winter and spring – four different movies essentially make up this two-part epic from Mori. And, each film begins in the same exact manner, with the narrator, Ichiko, introducing us to the town of Komori.

“Komori is a small settlement in a village somewhere in the Tōhoku region. There aren’t any stores here, but if you have a little shopping to do, there’s a small farmers’ co-op supermarket…”

Komori, which literally translates to “Little Forest”, is a fictional village located at the bottom of a mountain basin, cut away from the rest of the world, with a small population of farmers who live off this generous land. Lush paddy fields that stretch as far as the eye can see and thick forests teeming with rich plant and wildlife make up much of the landscape of Komori.

The story is told through the different dishes that Ichiko prepares each season. © Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (screengrab).

Divided into four parts, these films follow an interesting structure, with the narrative plot urged forward by the different dishes that Ichiko prepares in accordance with the season and the resources that are available to her. Major portions of both these films are spent in the kitchen, with detailed footage of how each individual dish is prepared. The ‘Summer’ portion of the film alone has seven different dishes.

The treatment and tone of these films also set them apart, with minimal dialogue and much of the story building done through Ichiko’s narration. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that the films resemble documentary programs from some Japanese version of a food network or travel channel.

But, at its heart, Little Forest has a very interesting story to tell and the method chosen to communicate it is genuinely affecting and moving.  Through the food that she prepares, and her narrative musings as she busies herself with farming and cooking – the viewer slowly learns about her childhood, the complex relationship she has with her mother, about her friends and neighbours, and about her time in the city.

Little Forest dwells in the most mundane of things in life and teaches tenderly. © Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (screengrab).

Ichiko grew up in Komori as a lone child with her mother Sachiko(Karen Kirishima) and surviving off the little money that Sachiko managed to put together from farming. One fine day, Sachiko takes off, leaving behind her 18-year-old daughter to fend for herself. Ichiko, forced to move to the city to try and build a life of her own, unable to cope with city life finds herself back in Komori.

In Komori, Ichiko leads a simple life – farming, cooking and eating – just like her mother, as she struggles to figure out her place in this world and what is that she wants to do with her life.

But, Komori wasn’t a choice that she made for herself, it was the only option available to her then. So, even when she finds herself enjoying her solitary life in Komori, Ichiko just can’t shake the feeling that coming back to her hometown wasn’t something she had actually wanted.

‘Home is where the heart is’ they say. If only it was as easy to understand what the heart wants. Most of us struggle with it our entire lives, forever in search of that which fills our soul with the happiness and warmth that it so craves. And, to watch Ichiko slowly learn the workings of her heart’s compass and finally find her way home is genuine fuel for the soul.

The strength of this wonderful collection of films also lies in its ability to deal with the human emotion, with a gentle subtlety that is only accentuated by the understated performances of a superb cast.

In a particular scene, where Ichiko is trying to make jam out of silverberries, she is reminded of her boyfriend from her time in the city and an incident when they both came across a silverberry tree while walking the city streets. Undecided on whether she should add more sugar to balance out the sour taste of the silverberries, the jam boils down before Ichiko can come to a decision – much like her relationship with her lover.

It’s little moments like these that elevate Little Forest to the genuine tour de force that it is.

An almost perfect advertisement for ‘slow living’, this underappreciated gem from Junichi Mori teaches tenderly and has a certain non-zen zen quality to it that is genuinely alluring. The soft calmness that Little Forest brings with its simplicity is delightful. And like Ichiko, the film might just succeed in braving your heart enough to go in search of your precious Komori.

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