Trigger Warning: Suicide
YouTuber Logan Paul has stirred controversy at the start of the new year after filming a vlog in Aokigahara, a forest in Japan that is a popular location for suicide attempts. Paul, who is 22, caught on camera the dead body of a man who hanged himself in the forest and made this the thumbnail of the since-deleted video. The intense criticism he received led him to write and film an apology that focused on the intent of his actions rather than their impact. This not only put into question the boundaries of the new Internet celebrity in the digital age, but it also made me ask more broadly how Americans engage with Japanese culture.
As someone who is diagnosed with major depression disorder and has been hospitalized twice for suicidal ideation, I do not take lightly to the claims that Paul laughed and smiled when he found a dead body in the Suicide Forest. Against my better judgement, I took the risk to my mental health and watched the video myself. What I found was less offensive and yet more dangerous than what I heard claimed. It is difficult to summarize a 14-minute(!) video, so I will consolidate my reactions instead.
Logan Paul is an idiot. He tries to set a respectful tone in the video by doing things like have trigger warnings and giving affirmations for those who are struggling with mental illness to seek help. And he clarifies that his laughter and smiles after finding the corpse come from his use of humor as a defense mechanism, which I believe. But his lack of consideration for people who are mentally ill in real life is evident by the fact he would videotape A LOCATION FAMOUS FOR SUICIDE ATTEMPTS in the first place. You do not visit a place of death for pleasure; that’s morbid. You do not maintain your lucrative brand by showing off a place of death (regardless of the fact the video was not monetized); that’s unethical.
The fact Paul says he visited Aokigahara because he wanted to end the year on an introspective and quiet note is offensive. The mentally ill and disabled are not here to make you, the neurotypical and able-bodied, feel better by showering us with pity without listening to our needs to make our lives easier. That would be enough to see that Paul was not respectful of the suicidal in the forest since the conception of his plan.
But then he crosses a line as a YouTuber (having foregone basic humanity long before this point) when he demonstrates that his interest in visiting was, in part, to maintain the attention and expectations of his fan base. Though his followers have argued that he should not be blamed for randomly capturing a corpse on film because he vlogs his life everyday, Paul’s self-serving interest is evident when he ignores one of his friend’s request to turn off the camera and leave. Instead, Paul walks to the dead body, bringing the camera along with him for the ride, only saving the viewer from having to see the corpse with a text screen explaining that doing so would violate YouTube’s guidelines. I was at a loss as to why he would do this when he looked so visibly distressed throughout the entire ordeal until the end of the video, when Paul reminds the audience he had made a commitment in one of his first vlogs to entertain his audience everyday. This somehow seems to be his excuse as to why he found himself in such a terrible predicament: he insists on sharing the “positive” and “negative” times of his life because he and his fans are family (the Logang) and this is “part of it”.
I am disgusted at the thought of impressionable young people learning about suicide and mental illness from this man-child. Scarier still is seeing members of the Logang defending him because he was doing his best to please as an entertainer when he stumbled across the body. I could write for a long time as to how fucked up this near-sighted vision of celebrity is, but I believe it has been better said by people before me. I would like to use this space as a blog dedicated to the arts to focus on how our media informed Paul’s decision to go to Aokigahara in the first place, which he said was based on what he had seen in books and movies.
When he said this I immediately thought of the 2016 film “The Forest”. The film loses itself in its attempts to scare with traditional-looking ghosts appearing from thin air while it illustrates the landmark’s role in Japanese folklore and contemporary society. This matches Paul’s description of wanting to visit Aokigahara because he heard it was haunted by the tormented souls of the dead suicidal who try to tempt visitors off the trail, presumably to meet the same fate.
The movie stars an American protagonist named Sara (Natalie Dormer, “Elementary”) who receives a call from police informing her that her twin, Jess (also played by Dormer), is assumed to be dead after having last been seen in the Suicide Forest. She goes to Japan to find her, driven to explore the forest in spite of countless of warnings to not go off her path at the risk of making herself vulnerable to being terrorized by the angry spirits that live there. At the hotel she is staying at, she meets travel journalist Aiden (Tyler Kinney, “Rock the Kasbah”) who knows a guide who can assist them navigate the forest. Once she begins exploring the forest with Aiden and tour guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), traditional Japanese ghosts and American demons begin to haunt her. Once one of the angry spirits of the forest warn her to not trust Aiden, she loses her peace of mind and becomes increasingly paranoid.
The superficial jump scares used are pointless and only serve to conform to the horror genre, echoing Paul’s interest in exploring the “haunted” aspect of the forest’s reputation without being prepared to face the real life tragedy that inspires it. The sudden apparitions of traditional Japanese ghosts and modern American demons in “The Forest” invoke short-lived fear in an otherwise dull film, showing the same lack of respect on the part of the director that Paul displayed in thinking that co-opting and exploiting icons of a foreign country’s social issues is somehow an appropriate subject for cheap and otherwise unoriginal entertainment.
The fearful tone of “The Forest” is poorly conveyed through closeups of branches and insects, and ghostly wails in the wind, which are not scary in the least. Additionally, several aspects of the real forest are distorted, making the purpose of exploring the tragic location unclear. Not surprisingly, the normal forest (even with an unfortunate association) is not scary by itself. The film decides to take creative license in an effort to bolster screen time by having Sara see that various corpses of people who committed suicide in the forest are held at the Aokigahara Visitor Center, which blatantly contradicts the fact that in real life the Japanese government and police work hard to conceal the dead bodies in order to not only avoid attracting more people contemplating suicide, but also to deter potential tourists like Sara due to the notoriety of its basin. Logan Paul is more than willing to play fast and loose with the meaning of the Suicide Forest as well, failing to make the connection of the sad suicides he’s heard of and the ghosts that are said to haunt Aokigahara as a result.
Something that I fear is that people struggling with mental illness will only ever be seen as weak and objects of sympathy, which is a key issue I take with Paul’s brand of raising awareness and “The Forest”’s plot development. The gruesome death of Sara and Jess’s parents in the movie is referred to throughout the film for no apparent reason. It’s confusing purpose finally appears right at the nihilistic end. Sara is warned by locals that she possesses “inner sadness” and that she should think twice about embarking on her journey. It is implied she begins to be haunted by the angry spirits of those who committed suicide once she enters the forest due to her being incapable of coping with her loss. To the movie’s credit, this defies my expectation that the loss was that of her sister due to the sheer amount of time spent on establishing the close relationship she has with Jess. But once the significance of her parents’ death is revealed, it makes her suffering at Aokigahara seem justified for being innately weak, devaluing her noble mission and painting every victim of suicide as the product of avoidable emotional damage. This is a grave misconception considering that most people with depression cannot trace their mental illness to a direct cause, which is irrelevant because even if there was a cause feeling depressed for long period of times is not healthy and deserves attention and care regardless of circumstances.
The movie overall is anti-climactic in the extreme despite its rich source material, much like Paul’s vlog. Not once does the YouTuber bring up the high suicide rates in Japan that allowed the creation of such a place like Aokigahara to exist in the first place. The lack of depth is a direct result of the stigma of mental illness that both works perpetuate. Paul in his video did not even stay in the forest to camp as he had intended, failing to realize his goal of ghost-hunting due to him going unprepared to face reality. “The Forest” ends with (spoiler) Sara annoyingly having no impact in the disappearance of her sister while still having invited the spirits of the forest to plague her anyway, equating the devastating deaths by suicide of the ghosts in Aokigahara with her untimely demise that she chose while in a perfectly healthy state of mind. Moral of the story: the media can take its lazy sensationaliztion of deadly illnesses and shove it up their ass.