The best horror stories, certainly the most effective ones, are the ones where no explanation is sought or required, where all that's needed is to allow an audience's communion with something awful and unnameable. Ango Sakaguchi's short story Sakura No Mori No Mankai No Shita (In The Forest, Under Cherries In Full Bloom) attempts to be about that very fact — how the things that most terrify us come from places inside us we cannot see, or maybe better to say that we choose not to see. This animated version, created for the Aoi Bungaku series of adaptations of classic Japanese literature to anime, is gaudy and funny without also forgetting to be unsettling — and sometimes it's most unsettling when it's trying to be gaudy and funny.
The dark hearts of men, the dark heart of the forest
"Without people," Sakaguchi's original story opens, "a forest of cherries in full bloom is not pretty, just something to be afraid of." What we now in present times associate with a lovely view or a place for drunken revelry, he wrote, once presented people with the sort of primal dread associated with a cemetery at night. Sakaguchi's purpose is not to analyze why this was the case, or how we normalized such horrors, but to study its effects on one man.
The man in question is a brigand of old Japan, and tough as he is on the outside, he's as vulnerable on the inside to superstition as anyone else of his era might be. Something, something, about that grove of cherry trees near the mountains where he lives, has a hold on him. Maybe one of these days he'll face it down, like that kid who tells himself someday he'll dare to cross through the yard of that weird house on the corner on his way home from school.
One day the brigand sets upon a few travellers, nominally to rob them, but they resist and he slays them. They leave behind a woman of striking beauty, the wife of one of the survivors, and as is his wont, he adds her to his ever-expanding collection of common-law wives. She's spoiled, selfish, insufferable. She demands he carry her on his back, and when she sees his other wives (all "collected" as she was), she demands he murder them to appease her. Rural living is loathsome to her — a complaint he takes personally, since to him, the forest and the mountains are his very life. And yet for all of her pettiness and shallowness, he is still enthralled by her. Unlikely a couple as they are, they are still a couple: she provides him with enchantment and company-of-a-sort, and he provides her with everything she asks for, up to and including murder.
She convinces him to move back to the city, where his rustic ways leave him feeling out of sorts. Rather than work for a living, he falls back to robbing and killing, and brings his bored wife the heads of his victims for her to play with. When he finally decides to kill her as well, the better to escape from his psychological bondage, he's confronted with the possibility that she may have been nothing but a projection of the most bloodthirsty parts of his personality. That and the terror struck into him by the cherry blossoms was a warning sign of sorts that he should have heeded better: No matter how much you kill, no matter how desperately you try to appease the hungers of others or yourself, you're always just as mortal and ephemeral as the blossoms that fall away.
Farce, fable, and mystery
You may have gathered from this rundown of the story that any number of interpretations are possible. In his essay "A Cradle of Literature," Sakaguchi referred to an episode in the classic poem anthology Ise Monogatari (The Tale of Ise) where a man loses the love of his life — "disappeared like the dew" — in a single night after pursuing her for years. "The chilling beauty of this kind of tale," said Masao Shimura in an introduction to a translation of In The Forest, and in reference to Sakaguchi's essay vis-a-vis the story, "is due to the feeling of helplessness it conveys ... because the loneliness of life is so complete that only when we realize its helplessness, darkness, and cruelty, can we begin to have hope." The brigand's terror is explicitly identified in the story as loneliness; the woman he makes into his wife implores him not to leave her behind out of fear of being alone (at least, so she says). Better to be together in a mutual lie, than alone on one's own facing the truth of life's ephemerality, and from that comes both of their destruction. In that light, maybe this mix of "farce, fable, and mystery" — Shimura's categories for Sakaguchi's various works — is better thought of as a tragedy.
I place these interpretations here not because I think they are definitive, but because I think they demonstrate how a story this simple on the surface can turn out to be bottomless if you peer deeply enough into it and with the right eyes. Director Tetsurō Araki (Attack on Titan, Death Note, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and the underappreciated Kurozuka) and his screenwriter, Ken Iizuka, haven't tried to apply any one particular interpretation of the story to the material, and I think that was wise. Instead, they chose a staging that plays up all three of potential categories for the work — again: farce, fable, mystery — by way of stylish design, stylized excess, and the occasional winking anime trope. They may not have a particular interpretation, but they sensed that material like this needed a certain kind of presentation to open up a range of interpretations that complemented it.
For one part of that presentation, Araki turned to Tite Kubo, creator of Bleach, to supply character designs for this installment. Some of that is trendiness — call it freshening-by-association — but the results have hearteningly little to do with Bleach as such; they complement the material in ways that have nothing to do with nodding to Kubo's other work. The brigand character is stolid, squared-off, scarred — someone who doesn't seem so much evil at heart as just self-seeking. Kubo also doesn't front-load the wife character's design with hints about her being evil. She looks languorous, seductive, more self-indulgent than monstrous, with a double dose of makeup (including shaved and repainted brows) and a kimono with colors just pink enough to be a nod to the feared cherry blossoms. The worst a casual onlooker could say about her is what might be said about her in the story as well: she's spoiled, not monstrous. Well, not until she starts having her husband collect severed heads and starts making erotic arrangements with them a la Joel-Peter Witkin's infamous photo "The Kiss".
The splashiest excess, though, comes in the episode direction and staging. Some of that is by way of gags common to anime — e.g., a boar that the brigand brings home as food, but who ends up becoming a part of the family. Much of it, though, comes by way of staging and art-directing the goings-on as if it were a Takarazuka-style stage revue, or maybe one of Seijun Suzuki's gonzo psychedelic productions (Princess Raccoon, Pistol Opera). The severed heads of the wives and the brigand's other victims turn into inoffensive stage props reminiscent of mannequins, and the lyrics to the Broadway-style songs appear on-screen, karaoke-style.
Funny as this stuff is, what's more important is that it's disarming and ultimately creepy. The reading I initially had of this approach is that it was just a nod towards Sakaguchi's writing style for the story — knowing, winking, self-conscious of what it's trying to evoke and why (at least at first). It allows you to ease up a little and laugh at (or with) the goings-on. Then the fangs of the story sink in, and you realize these stylizations are not attempts to lighten the mood. They're ways to convey how distant those horrors are from those committing them. By the time the real horror shows its face, it's too late — you've already laughed along with it, and you have to face up to that.
Getting an audience to confront itself via aesthetics doesn't always work. Some people just laugh at the parts that are meant to be laughed with/at, and shrug when the tables are turned on them. With In The Forest, the risk is even greater than usual, because the underlying material is so outré. But then I thought about how this might have played if it had been done "straight", as nothing more than a horror story that doesn't try to be funny, or as a fable that doesn't really try to be horrific. It might have worked fine when it was unspooling, but it wouldn't have had the same flavor of unease that stays with you, draws you back in, and makes you reflect on why you reacted the way you did. Maybe there really was no proper way to film this material "straight", especially when the real function of a story like this is not to scare us, but to unnerve us. Scares happen once. Unnerving is for keeps.