Beneath the colossus that is Mount Fuji lies Aokigahara Jukai, the Sea of Trees. A forest of suicides. Renowned for its dealings in suicide and loss, and alleged site of ubasute, the traditional practice of leaving the old or infirm to die in remote locations. The lifeless and densely vegetated forest is haunted by yūrei, the angry spirits of those left to die. Influenced more recently by Seicho Matsumoto’s novels detailing the suicide pact of two lovers, the sea of trees has become Japan’s most infamous suicide locale of choice.
Thrall’s latest album, titled Aokigahara, after the forest, does more than use the Sea of Trees as symbol and vehicle for the sake of music. It is the culmination of Em and Tom’s rumination on a country they lived in for three years, on Eastern collectivism and its appropriation of death, and the cultural backbone of modern Japanese thought, as Tom muses: “The geographical proximity of Aokigahara Jukai to Mount Fuji seemed to eloquently encapsulate the duality of Japan. The sublime and the abject intermingled. National landmark and national skeleton in the closet.”
In our research we discovered that Aokigahara had allegedly been a site of ubasute (pronounced oo-bah-soo-tay), the traditional practice of leaving the old or infirm to die in remote locations. This practice has been linked back to the Eskimo. Tom and I explored Hokkaido one summer and we were struck by the aesthetic similarities between Ainu culture, Eskimo and native American artifacts. We found amazing spiritual medicine artifacts, like masks made from wolf pelts, and other shamanistic evidence. The practice of leaving the old to die is common to both Eskimo and Ainu culture. I discovered an old Japanese poem written from the perspective of an old woman being carried up the mountainside to be abandoned. In the poem, she described leaving a trail of snapped twigs so that her son, the person carrying her up the mountain, would be able to find his way home safely. Her narrative seemed so brave; so resigned to her fate. Psychologically, it was very rich and complex. The ubasute ritual was not a murder or a suicide, but it resulted in death. I was inspired to write my own version of the ubasute poem from the perspective of the old lady.
And national skeleton it is. Japanese conservatism fueled Thrall’s desire to understand Aokigahara. “The Sea of Trees is steeped in superstition, and even daring, progressive Japanese friends seemed reluctant to talk about it. What was it about this place that was so powerful that it would silence any conversation? How can a place – made of rocks and trees – a collection of objects that are essentially neutral, become taboo?”
There is a burden in Eastern cultures to conform. Collectivism triumphs over individualism. Japan is steeped in Shinto and Buddhist traditions, which provide the foundations for the possibility of Aokigahara: “the need to assimilate and conform intensifies the stigma of mental and physical illness or class/caste status. This is typified by the fate of the hibakusha (the atomic bomb survivors who were singled out and discriminated) and burakumin (the last vestiges of the now-forbidden Japanese caste system – death handlers, butchers, funeral directors, coffin makers, leather workers). The conspicuous number of homeless retirees exemplifies the fate of those deemed useless in Japan. Suicide does seem to be more accepted in Japan. People just don’t seem to feel entitled to take up space and resources in the same way that they do here!”
In terms of global suicide, Japan ranks 10th. Hedging her bets, Em wages that “the isolation and conformism that is inherent to Japanese society may have a lot to do with the suicide rate.” The hegemony of collectivism informs all aspects of society. “I have experienced great kindness from Japanese people – friends and strangers, alike. I have also been ridiculed and singled-out. The rigidity of the sempai-kohai (senior/junior) relationships that develop in business, but also between bands, and even friends, pissed me off endlessly. This ridiculous hierarchy is placed in every relationship between two people, and along with the uchi-sotto (inside/outside) mentality, makes for a place that can be extremely isolating, especially for ex-pats. Misfits are just not tolerated.”
A lot of superficial freak-porn photos come out of Japan and these have lead to a commonly held belief that there are a lot of rebellious Japanese youths, just centimetres away from smashing the system. But it’s just dress-ups, and these dress-ups don’t disguise rebels lying beneath the surface.
There is a saying in Japanese: the nail that stands up is the nail that gets hammered down. Conformity is de rigueur in Japanese society. Em confesses that she “spent a lot of time being the nail that stands up – willfully. Playing the devil’s advocate. Questioning the whole fucking thing. Fuck it – what’s black metal about if it’s not about being poison in the human machine?” On the other side of the coin, you are a visitor, you have to know when to pull your head in. “I mean, it’s one thing to have a bit of fun or maybe spark a bit of debate. It’s another thing to piss on someone’s family/culture/heritage/race/worldview like a fucking cunt.”
Having lived in South Korea, ranked 2nd globally for suicide per capita, I found it hard to reconcile my Western tendencies with the demands that collectivism can place on an individual. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of the many is commonplace, and when an individual chooses to be individual, it can be an alienating, lonely experience. Both lead to depression, and in severe cases, suicide.
It is this alienating, culturally imposed dominance that informs Thrall’s disdain on Aokigahara Jukai. Transposing their trademark misanthropy with the depressive, somber concept of Aokigahara Jukai did not come easily. The goal was fairly simple, “we set out to write depressive black metal riding a motorcycle void-wards.” The writing process itself took around two years. “I was confident that the suicide forest would supply us with ample material but it was a lot more difficult taking on a concept album than I had anticipated… It meant that the songwriting had to be very disciplined and it removed some of the spontaneity.”
The final product is Thrall’s strongest work to date. Honed and focused by their chosen theme, the album shines as an uncut diamond in the rough. More organic, more grooves, more variation. What happens when misanthropy meets the end of the road: acceptance of death. Maybe even revelry in death. A road all men must walk, yet few could embrace quite as selflessly as Confucianism demands.
On a recent tour in Japan, Em and Tom visited Aokigahara. “It was an impressive, beautiful place. I’ve seen plenty of forests but Aokigahara has to be among the most magnificent. The undulating mossy floor, the softness of the Japanese maples, twisted saplings growing on volcanic bedrock, and vines everywhere. Soft-dappled light, vibrant green and quiet – deep and quiet. I was absolutely charmed by the place. A little red Japanese grass snake greeted us on our arrival. What an amazing omen. Maybe the place is magical or spiritual. Perhaps Aokigahara has been saved from being trampled underfoot by its unsavory reputation. Either way, I want to go back.”
These sights informed the artwork. Drawn by Tom, the imagery is inspired by the forest and illustrations depicting yūrei and decomposition. While not directly influenced by any particular works, Tom notes that “The Nine Stages of Change of the Deceased Remains by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799). Sally Mann’s Body Farm photographs, Vania Vouravliov’s, Takato Yamamoto’s and Harry Clarke’s (1889-1931) illustrations are all of some relevance.”
With packaging, music and release now all wrapped up, Aokigahara Jukai is available and Thrall’s ruminations are made public. The third album is not just a contemplation of Japanese culture, but also a full circle examination of Australian culture and human interaction globally: “Living overseas, particularly in Asia, it changes you. You experience the feeling of being the noticeable ‘other.’ It makes you question the way that you approach difference. It allows you to consider your own culture with an outsider’s eye.”
It affords a globally conscientious outlook that usually eludes the metal genre. As Em concludes, readjusting to Australian life was a process because of the vast difference in culture. “The tightly packed, extremely safe and harmonious major population centers in Japan work because of people’s ability to be self-contained. If you had all 20 million Australians living in a space the size of Tokyo you’d end up with rioting and anarchy, because everyone would be the nail that sticks up!”
Aokigahara Jukai is Thrall’s ode to Japan. The thrashing riffs, bombast of drums, and incivism of delivery may not paint the image of a cultural love letter, but it does sharpen the blade with which Thrall cut their misanthropic principles. Cave ab homine unius libri!