Short Film Spotlight: Jukai

The Bright Wall/Dark Room Short Film Spotlight is a regular feature celebrating independent short films by emerging filmmakers. To submit a film for consideration, visit our profile at FilmFreeway.

The forest of Aokigahara lies on the northwestern side of Japan’s Mount Fuji. Having grown from the hardened lava left by a disaster over a millennium ago, the forest is a place of resilience and renewal, a monument to the capacity for beauty to emerge from unimaginable wreckage. Given its location on the hardened form of a liquid flow, its vegetation rising and roiling on solid waves, it’s sometimes called the Sea of Trees. The minerals in the lava can corrupt navigation devices, and in some places that lava is so pocked with holes left by escaping steam that the very earth will absorb sound—it’s all too easy to find yourself lost in the Sea of Trees, and when you do, nobody can hear your calls for help.

The forest is threaded through with long strings that connect the path with the trees beyond; some of them were left by hikers afraid they’d become disoriented, others by any of the hundreds of people who go into the forest each year planning to take their own lives but leaving available the option for a change of heart and guidance home.

In Gabrielle Lissot’s Jukai, these are the threads that one expectant mother chases into Aokigahara. Each string represents the only hint of color—of hope, of life—in this monochromatic world, but as she follows the strings, gathering them in her hand as she goes, she finds each one leads her to a corpse. With more threads appearing beyond her all time, the forest she traverses becomes a dense web of interlocking pain, and at the endpoint of each tragic story, this young woman takes a moment to mourn, and then moves on with one more collected thread to carry on her journey. By the time she is ready to bring her child into the world, it’s these threads, these mementos of the sorrow she’s encountered on her way, that she can finally use to weave the nest into which she can lay a new life.

This central young woman is rendered as a sort of doll, perhaps one of porcelain, and she bears the small cracks and scuffs of a delicate object subjected to years of hard use. This aesthetic lends the story a fairytale quality—once upon a time, a doll got lost in the woods—but beyond that association, the design choice culminates in the film’s most powerful grace note: when the baby is born, when it’s laid in a bed hewn from its mother’s memories, it bears its own small cracks that echo hers. Much though we may envision our children as unspoiled objects brought into a world designed to harm and harden them, the truth is that they emerge as reflections of us, and of all the experiences that have formed us physically and emotionally on the way to bringing them into the world. Genetic research has shown that trauma can change us on so deep a level that it echoes in our descendents for generations. No life, no matter how new, is a pure undriven vessel, and to let go of this illusion is to free yourself of one of existence’s most persistently useless guilts, the better to walk alongside your child through this frighteningly complex life.

Jukai shares its name with a Buddhist ritual, one representing the moment you choose to devote your life to concerns outside your own. “The way of [Jukai],” writes Diane Eshin Rizzetto of Oakland’s Bay Zen center, “is the path of going beyond the dream of self.” It’s a notion resonant with the transformative experience of becoming a parent. In that instant, the moment that a new life begins and is placed in your hands, your every experience up to that moment is reframed. These are no longer simply your memories, but rather tools and lessons that you will use—sometimes consciously, far more often not—as the foundation of your parenting choices, forming this child’s worldview long before they’re capable of making memories.

In Japanese folklore, the Sea of Trees was once the site of ubasute, the ritual in which a child carried their parent into the forest at the end of their life. As the story goes, along the journey, the parent would leave behind a trail so that the child could safely find their way out once the ritual was complete, the endpoint of a cycle that began decades earlier with the parent carrying the child. As we move through life, our relationships so often consist of holding one another, offering protection and guidance in the most vulnerable of times. In just under ten minutes of wordless story, Jukai shows us how our hardest-won lessons can become beams of light to illuminate the path forward for one another, and how even as the threads of our trauma form a tangle of sorrow, it’s a tangle that can be organized and reframed into our personal narrative, a story we can make use of to shelter and guide those that come after us as they move through the world.

Life, this vast sea of trees, can be so perilous. And it’s the burden laid upon each of us to make peace with whatever tools we’ve accrued, and hope it can be enough.