Beneath scenic Mount Fuji lies a serene forest that attracts visitors from throughout Japan...to end their own lives. But what becomes of the unquiet spirits of the desperate souls who drift to Aokigahara, and what if some of them continue to crash against the lives of the living? Writer El Torres and artist Gabriel Hernandez, the Spanish creators of "The Veil," explore the unsettling story of two strangers coping with the darker side of the spirit world in "Suicide Forest," a four-issue miniseries from IDW Publishing. With issue #1 recently arriving in stores, CBR News caught up with Torres to discuss the project and its connections to folklore and mythology.
Asked about the appeal of building a story from the mythology of the woods of Aokigahara, Torres noted that there is some notable literary precedent. "Forests and suicides seem to be somehow linked in our subconscious. In Dante's 'Divine Comedy,' the characters enter into a dense forest where the trees are the souls of those who committed suicide. When I found some references and did some research about Aokigahara, well, I was astounded at the many similarities in view, even in cultures that span the gap between east and west," Torres said. "I realized a place like this was a fantastic setting for a great story, rich in myths and traditions, one that tapped the very core of our subconscious beliefs."
Speaking with Torres about the series, the writer displayed a strong appreciation for and knowledge of the legends and philosophies of many cultures, with "Suicide Forest" representing an interpretation of several strains of Japanese thought. "There are billions of wonderful stories and scenarios in any folklore. We have these tales inside us, we grow up with them. And, if we believe what Jung and others said, there is a sort of collective unconscious these deeply held myths spring from," Torres said. "In many fairy tales, the forest is depicted as a treacherous, dark place where danger stalks. Call it the Big Bad Wolf, the Witch or, like in 'The Suicide Forest,' ghosts.
"I'm particularly interested in Japanese folklore, too, the mythological creatures: oni, yokai - the ghost stories that play an important role in their culture," the writer continued. "One of their main tales is 'Kaidan,' which is in fact a ghost story about murdering, lost love and revenge. All these types of Japanese ghost (yurei, onryo, etc.) now are pouring into our culture thanks to manga and films like 'The Grudge' or 'The Ring,' both in their Japanese and American versions.
"And then there is religion. The Shinto and Buddhist religions can seem complex to us Westerners. They are sometimes mixed and matched; for example, many Japanese follow certain Shinto rites when they get married, and Buddhist ones when they get buried. Ghosts and spirits play an important role in their religions. Near Aokigahara, there are Buddhist monks that pray unceasingly for the peace of the souls 'trapped' in the forest."
For readers less familiar with Japanese culture and traditions, one of the series' protagonists serves as an entry point - an American who has lived in Japan for some time but still finds himself unable to fully integrate into the foreign society. "Alan performs the function of the outsider, so we can get into the Japanese culture as we are: foreigners who don't understand many of the nuances and meanings," Torres explained. "Even if one is living in Japan and fluent in Japanese, there is a difference, it's the 'soot,' a kind of barrier between the inner circles and the people outside that circle. He is the surrogate for the reader as we are introduced to this complex world."
Alan is also coming off a tumultuous relationship with a Japanese woman, Masami, an experience which has only intensified his isolation. "Another of the themes in the book is loneliness," Torres said. "Alan is a person lacking affection, with no family and almost no friends, living half a world away from everything he knew, a stranger in a strange land. Japan is a really wonderful country, but sometimes, as an outsider, you can feel very alone there.
"Seems sort of global - Spanish authors writing a story set in Japan for American readers. Luckily, we have lots of friends in each country that help us a lot!"
Torres told CBR that, despite a flashback showing the early days of Alan and Masami's relationship full of tenderness, the couple was in many ways doomed from the start. "I don't think it really began well, despite all the kissing. They were two lonely people that met and started to insanely depend on each other," Torres said. "We all know couples like that, people that can't live together but can't live alone. They make their lives miserable, always arguing, heated discussions and outright fights. That's what happened with Alan and Masami; fight, great passionate make-up sessions, then another fight. At times they hate each other, but they hate the thought of being alone even more."
The other central character is Ryoko, a forest worker who seems to know a bit about spirits. "Ryoko is another loner, but not a grim, sad loner. She has friends, she is congenial, she has a dog, but she keeps herself apart due to the things she knows," Torres said. "She knows that the ghosts in the forest are real, that they call feeble spirits to join them, and since she's a 'Miko,' a sort of Shinto priestess, she knows how to deal with them.
"We could think of Ryoko as the 'sane' loner, but she also has her secrets. Why does she do what she does? What is she looking for in the forest?"
Aokigahara itself looks to be something of a character, perhaps an adversary, with Torres suggesting its full significanceâ€•and horrorâ€•might not be revealed until midway through the series. "Though the forest itself doesn't appear much in the first two issues, we wanted to communicate the feeling that it is persistently calling the characters to go there. The forest itself is more than a setting, but we didn't want to show the forest as a living being either. If the place is haunted, it is because of the misery and pain of the spirits trapped there, those who killed themselves within.
"We also didn't want to depict suicide as something glamorous and full of poetry," Torres continued. "There is nothing redeemable in killing oneself. It's an action full of pain, fear, piss and shit. So, in 'The Suicide Forest,' you don't leave all your pain here, you take all your misery to the other side, hence the ghost concept. This is a ghost story after all, so there will be plenty of spirits and frights."
Series artist Gabriel Hernandez had his own comments to share about the character and tone of the forest. "What I enjoy most about drawing these types of horror stories is that you must create an atmosphere that somehow reflects the thoughts and feelings of the characters," Hernandez told CBR. "I try that with everything that appears in the panel, so that it expresses what the story needs best, whether it's a quiet moment or a scene of terror.
"We tried some new ways-for us-of storytelling in 'The Suicide Forest.' In the first issue, we play with the symmetry. In the pages where Alan has a sexual encounter and where Masami walks alone in the woods, for example. In the second issue, we used rhythm, like a taito drumming. Panel, panel, panel, panel, panel...splash page. There is a lot of rhythm and slow pacing in these issues. This horror story demanded it!"
"Suicide Forest" will be Torres and Hernandez's second series together, after "The Veil." (Both had previously worked on miniseries set in IDW's "CVO" universe, but not on the same project.) Their history, though, extends outside of the comics realm. "The story of how we connected is pretty simple: we share common relatives and knew each other before working at IDW, we even live pretty close to one another. We've been working together and 'The Veil' was the project that finally broke us into the US market as a team," Torres told CBR.
"We work well and fast together, we also know how far we can push each other. Gabriel changes whatever he wants on my script and I change whatever I want on his drawings. The bad thing for him is that he needs to redraw a lot of panels after my changes!"