A Girl Missing (Japan, 2019)

Koji Fukada made a name for himself in the 2016 Cannes Film Festival when his film, Harmonium, won the Jury Prize under the Un Certain Regard category. His latest project, A Girl Missing reunites him with Harmonium star, Mariko Tsutsui, to tell the story of a middle-aged woman suffering the severe consequences of public opinion run amok. An emotionally gripping psychological drama, Fukada’s film exposes the hypocrisy and destructive power of the many deep-rooted traditional values that still hold a grip on society at large.

Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) works as a home-care nurse for the Oishi family, taking care of the family’s matriarch who’s suffering from terminal stomach cancer. One day unbeknownst to Ichiko, her nephew kidnaps the family’s youngest daughter, Saki Oishi (Miyu Ozawa). The kidnapping doesn’t last long, and shortly thereafter Saki returns home safe. However, the publicity fallout from the incident slowly begins to haunt Ichiko. Once the tabloids get hold of the story, her family ties to the nephew come to the forefront, and the media’s constant harassment ruins her life: she loses her job, her fiance, as well as her sanity. The only one in whom Ichiko can rely is Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa), Saki’s older sister, but she too eventually betrays her. In the end, Ichiko is left all alone and broken to start a new life from scratch.

The narrative in A Girl Missing unfolds through two parallel timelines, one depicting Ichiko’s life after her life is ruined, and another describing how she got to that point. Fukada does not utilize conventional flashback techniques to switch between the timelines, but allows both to evolve naturally, cutting seamlessly between the two. There’s no warning, no change in style or cinematography between past and present. As a result, the plot is hard to follow at first, but once you’re in sync with the rhythm of the narrative, it becomes much easier to disseminate between the parallel timelines. The film’s non-linear structure serves not only to generate tension and reinforce the “reveal” as a clever literary device, but to also add an extra layer of ambiguity to the film’s moral core. By showcasing Ichiko’s behaviour at two radically different times in her life, the film capitulates on how much her actions are affected by her surroundings. Because of the film’s structure, Ichiko appears as a radically different person from one scene to the next, and only once we know the whole story does her character begin to fully make sense.

The character of Ichiko is the lifeblood of the film, and a great deal of merit must go to Tsutsui’s wonderful performance. From faithful fiance to bent-for-revenge no-nonsense woman, Tsutsui aptly handles the emotional range required of her in the film. Fukada’s film-making is often an exercise in subtlety (manifested through the characters’ deeply repressed emotions), and Tsutsui’s acting style nicely complements that approach. Ichikawa’s portrayal of the “lesbian-leaning” Motoko was also a standout, though perhaps the screenwriters’ decision to make Ichiko oblivious to Ichiko’s feelings for her made their relationship somewhat implausible. This is one of the narrative’s main weaknesses, as too many characters in the film are conveniently oblivious to the happenings around them. This includes not only Ichiko, but also her fiance who seems to be in the dark for everything.

A Girl Missing is a characteristically Japanese film, in the sense that it’s impossible to divorce the film from its Japanese setting and cultural context. The root of the conflict stems from certain firmly ingrained cultural conventions and traditional values that do not necessarily have an equivalent in the West. One such example is the sense of shame that Ichiko immediately feels upon finding out about her nephew’s crime – and the media circus that such a situation inevitably leads to. This could distance Western viewers as the conflict may not translate directly into our established tropes. Once past that, however, A Girl Missing makes for an exquisite and thought-provoking drama about a classically tragic figure.

A Girl Missing is on virtual cinema release from Film Movement.