When I first heard of Japan’s infamous Aokigahara Forest, nicknamed “The Suicide Forest,” I was immediately fascinated by this terrifying place that is inexplicably the site of numerous suicides each year. David S. Goyer told me he was producing a new theatrical film set in this haunting location, and I was thrilled he asked me to compose its original score. The film opens nationwide tomorrow.
More of a psychological thriller than a horror film, The Forest tells the story of a young American woman named Sara (Natalie Dormer, in a powerful performance) who ventures in Aokigahara Forest in search of her missing twin sister, Jess. I watched an early cut alone, in the middle of the night, in my backyard studio. When the film was over, I walked slowly between the trees in the dark night and found myself genuinely freaked out! That was my first sign that The Forest had incredible musical potential, with its terrifying real-world location and reality-bending psychological thriller elements. The producers, director and I all wanted to create a tone that evoked the classic horror and thriller films of the 1970’s, genres I have always adored. After providing very clear narrative guidance about his desires for the film, Goyer gave me the freedom to craft the score however I wanted. (I have scored over forty hours of narrative for him over the last few years, so we have developed a shorthand that came in handy during The Forest’s relatively quick post-production schedule.)
Solidifying the audience’s connection to Sara was the primary function of the score. As I set out to compose, I knew the film would require a melodic theme to connect with Sara at every step, to understand why she chooses to venture further and further into a dangerous environment. To accomplish this, I wrote the film’s Main Theme:
The relationship between the two sisters is played predominantly off-screen, so I used this theme to constantly remind the audience Sara is incomplete without her twin. The theme’s primary two phrases are inversions of one another, as if each phrase represents one of the sisters: closely related, but distinct from one another. The harmonic foundation is a chord progression oscillating between Em and E half-diminished (a G minor chord over an E foundation). This diminished harmonic quality gives the theme a sense of mystery: it is inherently unresolved. While the majority of the score’s running time is comprised of terrifying textures, this emotionally-engaging theme is the thread tying it all together.
The Forest draws heavily from Japanese folklore, in particular the tales of Yūrei, beings similar to Western legends of ghosts. I wanted my score to support this cultural connection, so I incorporated Japanese music into my writing. I have explored Japanese music extensively before, notably in my taiko-influenced scores to Battlestar Galactica, the Playstation 3 videogame SOCOM 4, and last year’s Salma Hayek feature film Everly. I drew from lessons learned doing those scores, but I also wanted to set The Forest apart from my previous work. To accomplish this, I experimented with traditional Japanese vocal songs.
I reached out to my friend, instrumentalist and composer Doctor Osamu Kitajima, to discuss my ideas. Thrilled to be working together again, on such an exciting project, Kitajima coordinated several sample recording sessions in Tokyo, produced by his friend, music producer and world-renowned percussionist, Hiromitsu Nishikawa. Kitajima had told me about Nishikawa for years, and at long last, The Forest presented our perfect opportunity to work together.
We set up an internet connection from my studio in Los Angeles to a studio in Tokyo, and communicated with Nishikawa, with Kitajima acting as translator. I asked Nishikawa to find a children’s choir to sing traditional folk songs. When I said “children’s choir,” I implied singers ranging from eleven to seventeen years old, but I wasn’t specific. A week later, Nishikawa brought his children’s choir into the recording studio in Tokyo, while Kitajima and I monitored online. To my shock, the children were much younger than I had expected, ranging from seven to nine years old. In place of the clear tones of a well-rehearsed vocal group, these children sounded like kids singing around the playground. I was initially upset I hadn’t made my intent more clear. With Kitajima translating my requests into Japanese, I encouraged the kids to sing softer and softer, slower and slower. Their schoolyard songs gradually took on other-worldly qualities, and I realized how lucky I was. In actuality, they were perfect for this score! Their gentle little breathy voices were genuinely frail and creepy, more effective than I could have ever dreamed. I used their songs throughout the film, as a cornerstone of the score.
Pushing their boundaries further, we instructed the children to whisper the text, resulting in chilling little chants. I used these recordings to represent the siren call of the forest. They are tucked quietly into the mix, echoing throughout the surround channels in the theater. The result is subtle, and yet subversive, hopefully burrowing into your subconscious as you watch the film.
Of all the songs we recorded, several stood out immediately, including “Kagome Kagome,” and “Nabe Nabe Sokonuke.” However, the one that really got my creative gears turning was “Toryanse.”
“Toryanse” is a traditional folk song, frequently played in Japan by traffic lights when it is safe to cross. The melody is rooted in a common Japanese modal scale, with asymmetrical phrasing, unusual to Western ears. When slowed down to a crawl and whispered by children, “Toryanse” becomes quite terrifying.
The lyrics are delightfully appropriate to the haunting tone of the film:
You may go in, you may enter
Which way is this narrow pathway?
This is the narrow pathway of the Tenjin shrine
Please allow me to go through
Those without good reason shall not pass
To celebrate the 7th birthday of this child
We’ve come to dedicate our offering
Going in is easy, but returning is scary
It’s scary, but
You may go in, you may pass through
Taken literally, the lyrics are about crossing a street safely. Taken metaphorically, I chose to interpret them to be about crossing over into another life, and a warning of the perils of getting caught in between worlds on your journey. To me, “Toryanse” is about Yūrei!
I featured “Toryanse” throughout the film, especially in the End Credits suite, where I intertwined it with my Main Theme. In doing so, I found that the “Toryanse” melody happened to fit perfectly over the minor-to-diminished chord progression that defines my Main Theme. Was that just luck? Or perhaps I was subconsciously drawn to “Toryanse” in the first place because of its modal similarity to my theme? Regardless, the two melodies fit perfectly together, and resulted in my personal favorite track on the entire soundtrack, a hard-driving and distorted setting of the film’s primary themes.
I employed a string orchestra and large female choir to give The Forest a big, cinematic sound. But, I needed more colors at my disposal to inject a distinctly Japanese flavor. I brought in specialty soloists to play unique Japanese wind instruments, including the shakuhachi and bansuri, and stringed instruments, such as the biwa, koto and shamisen.
In the hands of virtuoso performers, these instruments rooted the score firmly in a Japanese language. I used the wind instruments to create breathy textures, evoking the sound of wind rustling through leaves. I used the string instruments for piercing plucked accents to burst through the thick textures created by the choirs and strings. (The koto and biwa are especially expressive instruments I’ve blogged about in previous blog entries.)
One of the most iconic sounds of Japanese music is percussion. Scoring The Forest gave me the chance to expand my knowledge of Japanese percussion beyond my research from the BSG days. I wrote for the nagado daikos, shime daikos, uchiwa, and the other large drums I love so dearly, but I worked with Nishikawa and other percussionists, to incorporate new Japanese instruments, including the tsuzumi, kane and kagura suzu.
I also wanted to use percussion to directly represent the forest itself. I asked my percussionists to bring out every wooden instrument they had, including bamboo sticks, log drums, claves, sticks, and other unusual percussion. My goal was to evoke the sound of the trees themselves, in percussion instruments. Written in a sparse, kabuki style, the wooden percussion blends seamlessly into the Japanese percussion to form a unique percussion ensemble.
New sounds inspire me to write better music, and I had no shortage of them as I composed The Forest. The exotic percussion combined with the children’s choir, female choir, string orchestra and ethnic soloists, provided me endless inspiration. I think The Forest is one of the most distinct scores I’ve ever composed, and I am thrilled to announce it is now available as a soundtrack album from Sparks & Shadows.
1. The Forest Main Title
2. Journey to Aokigahara
3. Into the Forest
4. The Tent
5. Follow the Rope
6. The Reversing River
7. Alone in the Cave
8. The Cabin
9. Curse of the Yurei
10. Theme from The Forest
Scoring the The Forest was my first truly international production. Recording sessions took place over three continents, with sessions happening in Tokyo, Eastern Europe, and across the United States, ranging from Nashville to Los Angeles. For all these sessions, I either flew to the studios or produced the sessions remotely over the internet. We find ourselves in a marvelous new era of global collaboration. I am excited to work with my global ensemble again as soon as possible!
I strove to create a score for The Forest that was dynamic, exotic, colorful, emotional and terrifying. If I succeeded in doing that, I owe it to everyone who contributed their time, energy, talent and musicianship to bringing this score to life. Special thanks are due to David S. Goyer, Tory Metzger, Jennifer Semler and everyone at Lava Bear Films, director Jason Zada, Beth Lemberger and everyone at Focus Features, Steve Kaplan for his luscious mixes, Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson, Laurence Schwarz, Ryan Sanchez, Michael Baber, Richard Kraft and everyone at Kraft-Engel Management, Joe Augustine, Kyle Marie Colucci, Peter Rotter and his team, Alan Umstead and the Nashville Music Scoring Orchestra, the team at Ocean Way Nashville Studios, Pat Sullivan for her brilliant album mastering, and my whole team at Sparks & Shadows.
I hope my score for The Forest captures the initial intrigue and terror I felt as David Goyer first told me about Aokigahara, and I am thrilled that fans can now experience it in the film and on the soundtrack album. The Forest is actually not your only chance to hear my music on the big screen this January, so check back soon for another blog entry about another exciting film!