Hikimori trudged through the darkness of Aokigahara Forest, a man on a mission. Out here in the sprawling thirteen and a half square miles of tightly packed hemlock firs and Japanese Cyprus one would find a preternatural sense of quietude even on the brightest of days but at night the forest became a chasm of emptiness where even the sound of his ragged breath came out as a roar. He trekked along the tricky terrain, across the rocky, uneven forest floor where roots snaked their way above ground in treacherous threads as if they were crawling. He wore a straw paddy hat over his balding scalp and his dirty overalls were drenched in sweat. He had been out here for quite some time, scything a path through the serpentine trees with his high beam flashlight and walking stick. He wouldn't leave until he found what he was looking for, and Hikimori always found what he was looking for.
Aokigahara Forest was a popular tourist destination in Japan, known for its majestic view of Mount Fuji and dazzling ice caves. But beneath the natural allure lay a dark and sinister history. The forest was also one of the most popular suicide destinations in the world.
Every year, about 100 people venture into the Sea of Trees never to make it out alive. Men and women desperate and tired, sick of the struggles of life and yearning for the cold comfort of death. Police and volunteers often scour the woods – not to rescue, but to recover the remains.
It was Hikimori's job to get to them before they did.
Every week he would stalk the woodlands in search of valuables left behind by the victims of the forest. Sometimes he came up empty handed. Other times he hit the jackpot. One time he found a middle aged business man curled up in the fetal position, the pistol still in his mouth and Seiko Sport Solar watch still attached to his wrist. Another time he came across the corpse of a young woman still in school uniform, an empty bottle of prescription pills in her hand and even more goodies in her purse. He even found the husk of an old woman, more likely left there by a family member to die. She had nothing of value on her though, just a weathered old book in her gnarled hands.
Hikimori reckoned he had explored the forest for about ten years now. He always tread carefully through the labyrinthian trees lest he become lost himself and end up as one of the many yurei that haunted these woods. Hikimori didn't believe in that shit, but there was something about this place, as if a tiny piece of his soul was left behind every time he visited.
Before he came to these parts Hikimori was a vagabond living on the fringes of Japanese society. He had abandoned his wife and son years ago after deciding that family life wasn't for him. Tramps like him were born to run. He spent years working various odd jobs, offering nothing but the sweat off of his back in exchange for just enough yen to scrape together a meager existence. It was during his travels that he learned of the infamy of Aokigahara. Hikimori was a scavenger by nature, gaming the system and leeching off of any opportunities that came his way and Aokigahara was just another means to an end, the tranquil solitude of the forest concealing hidden treasures just ripe for the taking.
He came to a thick copse of Mongolian Oak trees, their branches so tightly knitted together that not even wind could whip through the leaves. Attached to one of the thick branches Hikimori found exactly what he was looking for.
He was just hanging there, his neck stretched unnaturally from the makeshift noose and face slightly blue. His eyes were glossy marbles that stared at nothing and his mouth was an 'o' of surprise as if he still couldn't believe it had come to this. Hikimori played his flashlight across the morbid scene before him and read the story that was written four feet off of the ground.
He was a young man, no older than thirty. It was clear that he had planned this for quite some time. His mud caked shoes were expensive loafers and he wore a black casual suit more fitting on the streets of Shinjuku, not the darkness of Aokigahara. He was clean shaven, his hair slicked back.
Thought was taken in his final desperate time.
If the hanged man could speak he would have told Hikimori that his name was Kazuo and he was born in a little town outside of Tokyo. His father had abandoned him and his mother when he was just a baby and while his mother had done everything she could to provide for her son it wasn't enough to lessen the pain of life without a father.
Growing up Kazuo had been a model Little League baseball player and while he excelled at the sport his constant insubordination in school stymied any hope of playing beyond youth league. After high school Kazuo found himself enrolled in Japan's NEET's (no employment, education, or training) program, just another cog in a system of dead end jobs with a one way ticket straight to minimum wage. He found a job at Yokohama harbor unloading and stacking crates, back breaking labor for shit pay but working outside surrounded by the salty ocean breeze gave him peace of mind.
Soon his life began to flow as gentle as the ocean currents. He met a woman named Hisako, a call center agent for a tech company, and after two years of dating they were married in a small, private ceremony. She soon gave birth to a baby boy who they named Kenta and Kazuo promised himself that he would give his son the life he never had. While Kenta had been born relatively healthy, tell tell signs of learning disabilities began to blossom in the child.
Kenta had once been able to learn and interact passably but by the time he was six years old he couldn't speak properly and communicated with moaning sounds instead. Then one day he gave up trying to speak at all.
Kazuo was left hurt and confused by his sons condition. It was the unfairness that gnawed at him, of seeing other little boys with their fathers at Little League games and knowing that through no fault of his own he had already broken his promise to his son. His confusion eventually ebbed to seething anger and he often lashed out at Kenta, who would shy away like a dog that pissed on the floor. His eruptions never lasted too long, but always long enough for Hisako to tell him what a worthless father he was.
That would have been the end of his misery, but then Kazuo's mother had suffered a stroke and was forced to move in with them. All of her years of sacrifice had not been without consequence as she had spent years drinking her depression away. The stroke had served to trigger the gradual onset of senile dementia, impairing her perception, memory, and speech. Although she was only fifty five, her emaciated form and grey hair made her look like a woman over seventy. This hard working woman, this breadwinner, reduced to a monotonous life of eating, shitting, and sleeping.
The sight of his mother depressed Kazuo to no end. He would often come home from work and find his mother and son on the floor at the low table silently eating rice cakes. Hisako would be seated on the couch, her attention fixated on some game show on TV. How irritating it was not to be able to talk to his own family, to tell them how exhausted he was after his shitty day at work. Kazuo felt trapped, as if dark walls were closing in on him; one who had given him life, the other who he had given his life to, and the last he had given life to.
When the sight of his family became too much to bear Kazuo would go to the bar. Silent and alone he tried to drink his way out of his pit of despair only to have his mind spin into fits of rage. There was no way out of the prison that had become his life. Nothing left but the pain and cold, miserable life. Dark thoughts burrowed into his mind like a tick and once the seed had been planted there was nothing left to do but end it all. Kazuo had run out of his Ikigai, his reason for being, and in its place was an existential suffering so profound it blocked all rational thought. In his inebriated mind he fantasized about how he could do it: maybe he could take one of Hisako's kitchen knives and plunge it into his belly seppuku style, or maybe banzai charge a police officer and go out in a hail of bullets. Suicide was often a violent and messy business. It would be much easier to just fall into an inescapable void and perish into oblivion, all memories of your existence forever erased. Life was not so forgiving however, and we have to deal with the consequences of our actions whether we want to or not.
There was one place a person could go to disappear however. Kazuo remembered it from his childhood, field trips to the ice caves and stellar views of the mountain. It was a place romanticized in Japanese culture but hid an ugly truth beneath its natural beauty. It was the inescapable void, the place where people went to end their own lives.
Kazuo returned home to find his family asleep. In the dead of night the stillness of the house was like a tomb, not that any of them gave the impression of being alive even when they were awake. He went into the bedroom, careful not to wake Hisako. She was laid out on her tatami mat, her dark hair a messy halo around her head.
Kazuo stared at her sleeping form. He wondered if all memories of him would truly be erased from her mind, if she would just go about her meager existence of answering phone calls and trivial television while his mother and son withered away to nothing eating rice cakes.
Her prone figure remained motionless.
He searched their closet and found a black suit jacket along with trousers and loafers. It was the same outfit he had worn to their wedding. He didn't put the clothes on immediately. As strange as it sounded he felt as if this was a special occasion. We put so much emphasis on the day of our births, why not go out in style the same way?
He then took a shower, and under the hot water and steam the lyrics of a song from his past floated to his mind and out of his mouth like a mantra. It was an American song, one that his mother used to play over and over again when he was little.
"At night we ride through mansions of glory on suicide machines…it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap…"
After showering Kazuo shaved the stubble from his face and slicked his hair back. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. His eyes were puffy and bloodshot from lack of sleep but Kazuo felt rejuvenated, an electric charge of anticipation flowing through his body. He dressed and made his way to the front door. Before leaving he breathed in the stillness of the air, the familiar scents of a home that had become nothing more than a house to him. He closed his eyes and tried to conjure his families faces one last time only to have slack jawed masticating visages and dead eyes burn in his mind. When he stepped outside and closed the door he didn't look back.
Don't leave the light on, I'm never coming back.
The drive to Aokigahara Forest was the longest trip of Kazuo's life. The road whispered underneath, no where near loud enough to quiet the thundering of his heart.
Kazuo finally arrived at the forest observation deck and parked. He opened his trunk and pulled out a line of fisherman's rope. The forest sprawled before him in a veil of shadows, a vast landscape of darkness where the yurei dwelled. There was a sign posted near the entrance path leading to the forest warning travelers of hazards and offering empty words of encouragement with a phone number to call. Kazuo took a deep breath, slung the cord around his shoulder and walked into oblivion.
Of course Hikimori didn't know any of this; the hanged man was dead, he wasn't saying shit.
It was time to get to work. Hikimori first inspected the corpse for any valuables worn on his body; rings, watches, chains, anything of value. Upon finding nothing worthwhile he then began to pat down his pockets. The early stages of rigor mortis had set in, the body resisting against his touch like cardboard. He fished inside the back pocket and dug out an old leather wallet. Of course the bastard didn't have any money in it, probably splurged it all in a desperate bender before coming out here. There was a driver's license inside, the picture of the man on it a stark contrast to the limp body hanging before him. Hikimori read the name on the license and recoiled as if physically struck. The forest seemed to grow smaller around him, the trees constricting and roots strangulating the air from the gloom. Hikimori Kobayashi was not a superstitious man, but here under the vengeful and judgmental eyes of the yurei it seemed as if fate had conspired to lead him here on this night to be reunited with his son, Kazuo Kobayashi.
Hikimori wondered what kind of man he had been. Did he have a family? Did he love? What had drove his son out into the Sea of Trees to kill himself?
The forest held no answers.