Directed by Sion Sono, ‘The Forest of Love’ follows the story of a group of filmmakers who go down a dangerous path of unlocking their passion and discover some terrifying things about themselves and each other. The film blends various elements into the mix, delivering a perverted tale of love and crime. In a typical Sono fashion, it takes many twists and turns before revealing the final twist that leaves you thoroughly confused. If you haven’t yet seen it, head over to Netflix and come back here to make some sense of what you actually saw in those last few minutes.
What Happened in School?
Taeko and Mitsuko’s story is an integral arc for the film, and in the end, it is revealed that their relationship is one of the main reasons why it all ended so badly for everyone. Both of them have suffered a loss that they both find impossible to move on from. Romeo seems to be the centre of their grief and it is what eventually leads to both of their deaths. Through flashbacks, we find out their story, but that’s just from Taeko’s perspective. The whole picture comes together when we come to know about Mitsuko’s side of it.
When they were in school, they had a tight-knit group of friends, led by Eiko. She was a vibrant girl, liked by everyone. She suggests they perform Romeo and Juliet for the annual school play. Mitsuko becomes Juliet, Eiko takes the role of Romeo, while Taeko is tasked with its direction. Playing the eponymous heroine, Mitsuko develops real feelings for Eiko. Eiko too flirts with her a little, but she falls in love with Taeko. This stirs jealousy in Mitsuko, and even though she smiles and dances with them, in her heart, she harbours malice. She hates Taeko and is resentful of Eiko for not choosing her instead.
One evening, while returning home, Eiko is run over by a vehicle and dies on the spot. Taeko is devastated, but Mitsuko is glad. This shows that her love had taken the form of obsession, so much so that she’d rather have Eiko dead than with someone else. (This also raises the question that had Eiko not died then, how long would it have taken for Mitsuko to kill her herself?) Her already disturbed state of mind allows her to think that her Romeo has joined her in spirit (which eerily sounds like an Ed Kemper thing) and is now truly, and in all entirety, hers. She spends all her time with Romeo, and the strict nature of her father makes her shut herself from others.
Unaware of how Mitsuko actually feels about her, Taeko tries to reach out to her. She knows about her hallucinations and thinks that her overindulgence with imaginary Romeo will destroy her. But her own grief prevents her from being able to actually do something about it.
The rest of their group shares their sentiments. While the school prepares for the annual function, the five of them suffer from severe depression. In one of those moments, they decide to end their lives and reunite with Eiko. They make a pact where if one of them dies, they all die. They ingest medicine that makes them sleepy, and stand on the ledge of the roof, trying to stay awake. The others stick to the plan, but Mitsuko is distracted by Romeo and spits out the medicine. Hence, she is the only one who doesn’t fall. The other three die from the fall but Taeko is saved by a car. Her leg, however, is damaged in the process.
Who is the Serial Killer?
‘The Forest of Love’ begins with the news of a murder. We see a middle-aged man with a yearbook in front of him, from which he has crossed off the pictures of almost all girls. And then he says the thing about “the first kill”. This makes us think that he might be the serial killer. Later, he is introduced to us as Joe Murata. He turns out to be a conman and his overall demeanour works in favour of the serial killer theory. He is a violent person, and frequently uses force not just professionally (in whatever form his job might be) but also sexually. He is a sadist who enjoys torturing people and has convinced himself that his victims enjoy it as much as he does. He calls it sadomasochism, but then he is never on the receiving end of the electrocution rods, so his perception of the pain of others is highly flawed.
The only trick in his bag is his exceptional ability to speak to his audience. He weaves a web of words and people, especially women, find him irresistible because of it. Even when they know that he has conned them, they are still crazy about him. This is the only thing that has kept him alive for so long. Beyond it, he is highly incompetent and good for nothing person. He never gets his hands dirty, be it for work or murder. In fact, as time passes, he makes everyone in the group torture each other. His ability to con people has dissipated now and it is easier to break off of his spell. Do we despise him? Absolutely. But can he dirty his hands to be a serial killer? No.
With the main suspect out-of-the-way, the question remains: who really is the serial killer? Slowly, the answer becomes crystal clear. After the ruckus at the bank, Fukami becomes distressed and leaves the group. His absence leaves Jay depressed and he starts to think about leaving too. But before he can do that he is killed by Mitsuko. So, both of them are checked off the list.
This leaves us with Shin. His profile fits the bill very well. The murders started around the time he came to Tokyo. In the concert, he is the one who suggests the possibility of Murata being a serial killer. He doesn’t like what Murata does to Mitsuko and Taeko, and then suddenly becomes his most ardent follower. When the killings start, he is completely at ease and even seems happy to do it. At first, it seems like the descent of a sane man into darkness. But his transition is too sudden to be real. Either he really has gone mad, or he has done all of it before.
The tables turn at the end when it is revealed that Mitsuko was not as innocent and gullible as we had initially thought her to be. She is not with Murata because he has some kind of psychological hold on her. In fact, she is using him as a tool to destroy everyone else’s life. She has hatred for a lot of people and with Murata’s destructive nature and Shin’s serial killing skills, she wants to kill all the people on her list before she dies herself.
Knowing her true intentions, the film begins to make much more sense. She uses her scars to gain the sympathy of the men and drives them towards Murata. She knows that Taeko wants to save her and won’t run away as long as she thinks Murata has an influence on her. In all the moments that Taeko thinks about running away, she enthuses her with excitement about the film. She is the first one to start the series of murders that are committed by the group. She kills Jay with her own hands, making it look like she had done it in a fit of acting. She doesn’t hesitate from getting rid of the body either. For Taeko, this is the last straw. Disposing of her friend makes her run away, even though unsuccessfully. But for Mitsuko, the game has just begun. Moreover, when Taeko doesn’t return, she figures that Shin has killed her.
After this, she leads Murata to her parents. Any sane person would question this decision. Why would you bring a man like that home? The one who prompted you to kill? But with Mitsuko’s intentions revealed, we understand that this was just a part of her plan. She knew that sooner or later either she will get the chance to kill them or Shin would do his job? Her work is eased when her father hangs himself and Ami is forced to kill her mother.
The Ending: Romeo’s Role
With all the secrets and mysteries out-of-the-way, it seems like ‘The Forest of Love’ has cleared up everything. But then one final twist shakes our understanding of the whole film. After he kills Mitsuko and Ami, Shin tries to kill Murata, but the con man escapes. Shin drives back to the city and picks up a woman on the way. Meanwhile, Murata finds his way out of the forest and hitches a ride in a woman’s car. That woman turns out to be Eiko, aka Romeo. In the next scene, we see Shin driving away with the woman when he sees Mitsuko’s apparition by the side of the road. He stops the car and runs into the forest.
We know that Eiko had died a long time ago. Mitsuko would see her, but that was just a figment of her imagination. Taeko saw her, but at that time, she was highly distressed and might have been hallucinating as well. But Murata didn’t know her, then how could he see her?
The most logical and uncomplicated answer is that it is Eiko’s ghost. Mitsuko wasn’t delusional and Taeko too saw the ghost. Back at school, the ghost appeared to Mitsuko and saved her. All the time that we saw Romeo, it was a ghost. In that case, it is safe to assume that Murata is now dead. Eiko tells him to “go to hell”, and by the look on her face, we can say that she meant it literally. In a similar vein, Shin saw Mitsuko’s ghost.
Another explanation could be that the woman who Murata met was just a lookalike of Eiko, possibly even her twin. We don’t know anything about her family and her past, so we can’t scrape off that possibility. But then, her presence in the forest would be a coincidence, and nothing in this film depends on chance. Similarly, we could attribute Mitsuko’s apparition to Shin’s guilt, considering she was his last victim. But Shin has killed too many people to be riddled with guilt now. There had never been an ounce of shame or regret in him while killing people and chopping up their bodies. So, to suddenly develop such a feeling for a girl he barely knew would be inconsistent with his character. Or maybe he did form a connection with her, since both of them were psychos, in one form or another.
Is Forest of Love Based on True Story?
Back in 2018 when the film was announced, director Sion Sono had confirmed that the story of the film is inspired by gruesome true events. It is based on the crimes of Futoshi Matsunaga, however, the story has been changed considerably, especially to fit in the twist about the identity of the killer. In the film, it is Shin who the cops are looking for, while Murata only defrauds and tortures his victims. In truth, Matsunaga committed everything from extortion to torturing to the killings. He had a charming personality, which he used to lure in women, some of whom had been happily married. His accomplice was Junko Ogata, a girl he knew from school. Before her, he had already been married once and had had dozens of affairs. He promised to marry her but was not liked by her parents. As expected, things didn’t end well for them. In addition to this, he was also known for torturing people with electrical shocks, much like what Murata did to the people he worked with.
No physical evidence was retrieved against him, which is why he succeeded in evading capture for so long. But after one of his victims escaped, she informed the cops, and the list of all of his victims came to light. Junko confessed, but Matsunaga stuck to his innocence. Still, the couple were found guilty on at least six counts of murder. Junko was sentenced to life imprisonment, while Matsunaga received the death penalty.