I had long been of the impression that VICE was a somewhat hateful organisation. These preconceptions were largely acquired through watching Nathan Barley, rather than actually following the content of the magazine or website all that closely.
What I have seen of their coverage to do with Western music scenes/subcultures is still annoying. Sending some guy to an Emo club night, or a Skrillex gig, to snidely interview the most vocal idiots; the implication being that the interviewer is some kind of arbiter of proper music/clothing taste.
I was walking through Amsterdam the other week and there was a drunk girl in a bus shelter, wearing a tight shiny dress looking tired and delirious. She was flanked by a ‘guerrilla’ camera crew of 3 men who were shining a light in her face and asking her questions at 3 in the morning. They know exactly what kind of response they are going to get from that girl. In these scenarios, it is always the team doing the interviewing that comes out of it looking the worst. If you have gone to the effort of organising a camera crew at 3am, just to look down on people, then you are clearly a twat of the finest vintage. Not entirely sure how this practice became popularised, but they still do it on Vice.com sometimes so I’m laying the blame at their door, for now.
However, if they were to be tried in court, I would offer lenient sentencing for some of the journalism and documentary filmmaking they are doing outside of their remit of providing snide content. They are interested in weirder things than most other media organisations and they have a genuinely worldwide agenda; this means that they frequently popularise and uncover things that otherwise get very little mainstream coverage elsewhere (for example this article about a country that technically doesn’t exist).
Exhibit A for the defense would be this documentary about the Aokigahara Forest in Japan (AKA Jukai, AKA Sea of Trees, AKA Suicide Forest).
The forest became a suicide blackspot after the publication of a hit novel in 1960 called Kuroi Jukai, in which a young lover commits suicide in the forest.
Since then people started taking their own lives in the Jukai at a rate of around 50 to 100 deaths a year. The forest is 35 square kilometers in size, and surrounds Mt.Fuji. The authorities sweep for bodies only on an annual basis as it is too dense to patrol on a regular basis.
What prevents the documentary from simply being morbid and depressing is the character it follows round. Azusa Hayano is a Geologist who works in the forest. Due to the unique nature of the place where he works he has to be continuously aware that he could happen across someone who has taken their own life. He wanders round the forest with the immense dignity that people achieve when they have had some gigantic psychological burden placed on them, but somehow wear it lightly.
Unlike some other Vice pieces, the filmmakers personality is completely absent, letting you get immersed in the beautiful (but eerie) environment and what Hayano has to say.
Throughout the forest there are leftovers from numerous suicide attempts, including tents, abandoned cars, suicide notes and nooses. It is hard to tell whether or not these instances had all been ‘successful’, but they make you wonder who left them and what their mindset was.
Hayano points out the signposts that have been placed all around the forest in various locations to dissuade people from taking their life: “Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Please think about your parents, siblings and children.”
The saddest point in the documentary comes when Hayano discovers a young man in a yellow tent and goes over to speak with him. After seeing all the melancholy leftovers leading up to the meeting, it is actually a shock to find someone whose fate is in the balance, rather than settled long ago.
It is interesting how socially awkward and embarrassing it is. They both know why he is there; the young man sounds audibly flustered (for obvious reasons, you don’t see him). You can see how people can pent themselves up in their own minds about the insurmountable nature of their own problems, becoming utterly convinced about what they are going to do; then someone comes along to speak to you and the illogical nature of what you are planning becomes transparently clear: you’re not Hamlet, just a socially awkward boy sat in a yellow tent. Hayano doesn’t chastise him; he merely tells him that “the path is back that way.”
Hayano and the camera crew happen across a skeleton in the forest, still wearing walking boots and trousers. Hayano estimates that it has laid there undiscovered for 1 or 2 years.
When quizzed about why he thinks people are driven to suicide Hayano chalks it up to the retrenching nature of human intimacy in the modern era. People are online all the time, alone, getting only a mirage of a social life. People need to speak to each other in the flesh and have eye contact to feel part of society (main flaw with his explanation is that the suicides in the forest have been happening since the sixties, also the act of suicide probably spans the whole of human history; there is no blood on Zuckerberg’s hands… yet).
Finale of the video sees Hayano discovering a tree with bouquets of flowers and chocolate boxes rested against it. Hayano’s closing remarks are that: “You think you die alone? no–one is alone in this world.” When you think that someone came to that area of the forest alone and killed themselves; then the relatives/friends mirrored the journey together, to lay these gifts at that exact spot in the middle of a gigantic forest, it is hard not to agree with Hayano.