The father of a young girl who's scheduled to be married into wealth, hires the charismatic detective Mike Hama to bring her back after she refuses to leave a health spa she's attending. Seems like a simple enough job for the gumshoe -- that is until he arrives at the resort himself. Becoming infatuated with another young woman attending the same resort and trying to make sense of the head Doctor's teachings, Mike finds himself staying, willingly, as well. Mostly to find out what secrets lie within the forest and why it will help him to find his true self.
"Mike Yokohama: A Forest With No Name" has been a long time favorite movie of mine; always found it to be an interesting and entertaining surreal-ish noir kind of movie. Before I get into the movie I feel that I need to get into the history of the character Mike Yokohama (Yokohama, or Hama, is in reference to his hometown.), or Maiku Hama as he's more commonly known as (but is referred to as Mike Hama in the movies).
While loosely connected with the literary character Mike Hammer, Kaizô Hayashi directed a trilogy of films ("The Most Terrible Time In My Life", "Stairway to the Distant Past" and "The Trap") centered around enigmatic detective, Maiku Hama. Eventually the trilogy lead to a TV series (twelve episodes) that was produced but it was done a bit differently than what people expect. Each episode was directed by a prolific Japanese filmmaker (Sogo Ishii, baby! Woo!) except for the last episode, which was directed by Alex Cox ("Repo Man"). Two versions of each episode were made: a TV cut and a director's cut. That's where "Mike Yokohama: A Forest With No Name" comes in; it was an installment of the series and unfortunately the only director's cut version to be released abroad.
Amazingly, in every installment in the Maiku Hama canon, actor Masatoshi Nagase has always played the character. While Masatoshi has been featured in numerous Japanese cult titles, such as "Suicide Club", (Where he, oddly enough, plays the part of Detective Shibusawa.) but he is probably most recognized as Thunderbolt Buddha from "Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts" or more likely, Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train".
Now, with that out of the way; what is "Mike Yokohama: A Forest With No Name" about? That's a good question and one that's not easy to answer. What the narrative is about is Mike taking a simple case of a father who wants him to bring his daughter back from a "health spa" that she won't leave. With a rather large debt hanging over his head and causing him to receive a beating with a golf club in the beginning of the movie, Mike takes the case -- easy job, easy pay. When he gets to the resort, he learns that there is more going on than what he expected.. Designed to help people find themselves, the Doctor (never specifically named) informs the people who attend that identity and freedom is an illness and when they accept that, then they can find out what makes them happy -- find their true selves. It should have been an easy job for Mike: go to the resort, get the girl, go back to the office, get paid and pay off his loan shark. Like everyone else, Mike gets caught up in the Doctor's cryptic teachings and wants to find out and understand why there is a tree in the forest that looks like him.
Yes, "A Forest With No Name" is another movie where you have the main plot, narrative or whatever you prefer to call it, and then subtext -- what it really wants to say. The initial plot -- the 'detective plot' -- is fun; it's a bit separated from the obvious noir influences that Kaizô Hayashi had in the original films. Bits and pieces still show up in the tone of "A Forest With No Name" but the character Mike seems a bit more updated -- Hawaiian shirts have been replaced with bondage pants -- however, he is still the same quick witted, slacker, nonchalant, spontaneous, off-beat detective that made him a cult icon.
With this movie, don't expect to get much out of any other character than Mike. While it is the director's version, it was still created for television so it doesn't go into great depth with the characters and story. Obviously there is enough there to keep the movie coherent and as logical as the odd-ball plot can be, but the surface story could seem a bit shallow to some. Then again, the movies obvious focal point is that secondary layer and ambiguous subtext. However, thankfully, "A Forest With No Name" isn't one of those movies where it wants to be pretentious and wants people to walk around and say, "Well, you just don't get it." The movie makes it obvious for everyone that there is an underlying meaning to whole thing, but it leaves the interpretation of the ideals and symbolism for each viewer.
Quite a few people see the movie as being a reflection of society -- trees being people and how "we are all a part of the same forest" -- which serves as a nod to Kiyoshi Kurasowa and his film "Charisma". Such an interpretation is easy to see and one that's even easier to agree with. Is that what "A Forest With No Name" is trying to say? I d'unno. There's not enough there for me to say with certainty that's what Shinji Aoyama and Kaizô Hayashi wanted me to take away from Mike's adventure. It's not so complex that'll you'll be scratching your head for days but "A Forest With No Name" will lead to interesting conversations between viewers and have you thinking about it for awhile.
That's why, ultimately, I enjoy "A Forest With No Name" as much as I do; it's an easy movie to watch but not necessarily an easy one to digest. Lots of ways to view and interpret the philosophy of the metaphors with no right or wrong answer made clear. It's an approachable abstract story that most audience members will be able to see but one that you don't necessarily have to appreciate in order to enjoy the movie.
It's also an enjoyable movie because it doesn't get lost in it's own ideals or ambiguity and doesn't become weird for the sake of being weird. There is still the plot of Detective Mike going to retrieve a young girl from what is ultimately a cult. Brought out most likely due to it's budgetary restraints from being a TV production; the low-budget aesthetics of the movie makes this production from 2002 feel like it came out of the 70's or 80's. It reminded me a bit of movies like "Lost Highway" or "Shivers" -- both akin to that style of a traditional narrative with another story beneath surface. Also because "A Forest With No Name" has the ability to bounce between comedic breaks provided by our title character to really dark moments with "graduates" from the hospital going on killing sprees or committing suicide. The whole movie has a very strange look and vibe that I can't help but be fascinated by, especially with the location.
"Mike Yokohama: A Forest With No Name" is probably one of my favorite Japanese movies and one that I can't recommend enough. Sometimes funny, sometimes dark but always a bit unusual; it gives plenty for people to enjoy and some things for you to talk about when it's over. With an extremely brief runtime and that isn't striving to be anything other than interesting and entertaining, there isn't a reason to give Mr. Mike Hama and "A Forest With No Name" a chance.