Here's the quickie version of my review of A Forest With No Name, freshly release on DVD by Facets Video: Movie good, excellent even. DVD bad. Watching this was a frustrating experience. The film is excellent on a multitude of levels but the flaws with the DVD are many and obvious to the point that I can't honestly recommend that you do more than rent it.
Originally conceived as a tribute to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer young Japanese private eye Maiku 'Hama originally appeared in a trio of theatrical films before moving on to a series of made for TV films helmed by directors as acclaimed and diverse as Sogo Ishii, Alex Cox and, in this case, Shinji Aoyama.
Those who know the character only through the first feature - The Most Terrible Time Of My Life - should know first of all that the series abandoned that film's gorgeous black and white film noir tone in the subsequent entries, a decsion that still saddens me but one that has the benefit of allowing the later directors to reshape and remold the character to suit their own tastes. Such is definitely the case here with Aoyama turning Hama into a stylish, brash young man who would appear far more at home at a glam-punk show than hunting down criminals.
Hama first appears on screen being beaten by a loan shark. Some things never seem to change with the character, among them that he's perpetually broke and a horrible fighter. Hama owes money, and a lot of it. He needs a high paying job and he needs it fast. Thus he leaps at the opportunity when a wealthy businessman approaches him to bring his daughter back home from a mysterious retreat center where she has run off to "find herself". Adding urgency to the mission is that her father has arranged a marriage for her into a wealthy family: she must be returned before anybody realizes she is gone and without anyone catching word of where she is or the marriage will likely be called off.
It it seems a slim premise for a mystery film that's because it is. Aoyama quickly abandons any pretense of this being a detective story - Hama is actually given a flyer and map to the retreat center, completely removing the need for ANY investigation whatsoever - instead taking a hard left turn into a surreal, almost Lynchian world. Though the director of the retreat center denies any sort of political or religious affiliation the 'guests' wander in a blank faced, hypnotic glaze as they are encouraged to act on their innermost desires and if those desires involve violence, so be it. Hama's target refuses to leave, of course, and so he takes up temporary residence at the center himself and finds himself compelled to find a mysterious tree deep in the surrounding forest, one the retreat director insists looks just like him.
Less a narrative than it is a series of subconscious impulses, A Forest With No Name is a strikingly composed and completely open ended study of the nature of desire and identity. What is it that makes people who they are? Why do we have such a burning desire to define ourselves? The retreat center with its glassy eyed potential for violence seems a clear reference to the Aum death cult that unleashed the sarin attacks in Tokyo's subways and Aoyama gives a surprisingly sympathetic look at why people might be drawn to such an organization. The film is beautifully shot with some genuinely stunning imagery - i.e. the tree itself. Aoyama's stylistic flourishes are in full effect and Masatoshi Nagase gives an excellent, multi layered performance as Hama himself.
So where are the issues? Well, first up the disc itself is positively spartan. There is absolutely nothing on it beyond the one hour film itself. The menu options are play and scene selection. That's it. The observant among you are now asking why there aren't audio or subtitle setup options. Simple. Because there are no options to choose from. The audio track is the original TV broadcast audio with English subtitles burned into the print. The translation is good but, as is always the case with burned in subs, the text becomes difficult to read whenever placed on a light colored background. And as is always the case when you see burned in subs the transfer is from a source at least a couple generations removed from the original print. To me it looks as though the DVD transfer was done off of a BETA tape source, which was itself created with a well used print with plenty of dirt, scratches and damage visible. The film isn't unwatchable but it could look far, far better than it does which is a major frustration when dealing with a director who shoots good looking film the way Aoyama does. It gives you enough to know that there is something impressive happening while obscuring the details that would raise it up to the next level.
So, there you have it. A forest With No Name succeeds on at least three different levels: as a stand alone film in its own right, as one of the strongest entries in the Maiku Hama series, and as one of the better entries in Aoyama's impressive body of work. Unfortunately it hasn't gotten the kind of DVD release it deserves. With the trilogy of theatrical Hama releases hitting shelves via Kino Video here's hoping someone out there also picks up the TV series and gives them the clean up and release they deserve.