A Girl Missing (Yokogao)

Japan (2019) Dir. Kôji Fukada

What goes around, comes around is a famous expression to warn people to be conscious of the repercussions of their actions. It’s a more polite way of saying “karma is a bitch” but this implies comeuppance is a one-way street. Sometimes, this isn’t always the case.

Ichiko Shirawaka (Mariko Tsutsui) is a home nurse with a spotless reputation, currently tending to the matriarch of the Oishi family. She is often helped by eldest granddaughter Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) who wants to be a nurse, and Ichiko helps with her studies. One day, while studying at a café with Motoko’s younger sister Saki (Miyu Ozawa), Ichiko’s nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo) stops by to drop off some old textbooks.

That night, Saki doesn’t come home, returning two days later having been abducted but remains silent about her ordeal. When the culprit is caught, Ichiko is shocked to see it is Tatsuo and is about to tell Saki’s mother Yoko (Nahoko Kawasumi) but Motoko warns her not to. Ichiko struggles with this decision until journalists write a false story implying she was involved in Tatsuo’s crime, and her life begins to fall apart.

Kôji Fukada has form in looking at the destructive behaviour of people and the effect it has on the innocent. His 2016 film Harmonium was a gnarly, distressing example of this with an almost cruel streak to it. A Girl Missing is less horrific and less revealing but still an unsettling dissection of an unravelling psyche up against a judgemental world intent on crushing it prey with the barest of facts at its disposal.

Much of the opprobrium aimed at Ichiko bears out the “innocent until proven guilty” ethos as opinion is informed by distorted and circumstantial evidence. Fukuda keeps it simple in that regard, eschewing the usual social media uproar prevalent in today’s world, relying on print media and TV to influence the public and the people in Ichiko’s life, with devastating results.  

Fukada apparently wants the audience to share Ichiko’s disorientation by splitting the narrative across two timelines and intertwining them without warning. Even though it should be obvious once period are we watching – Ichiko has her hair cut and lightened in the second scene – it takes a while for this relation to settle in. Once it does, the story starts to make more sense.

Going into detail about the plot means sharing spoilers so forgive me if the discussion on this front is a tad inadequate. The opening act is plodding and seemingly directionless but this purposely done to set up the comfortable world Ichiko lives in, leaving us unprepared for when the troubles begin. Saki’s disappearance isn’t even that shocking as life carries on in her absence – it is the fallout that brings tragedy and unrest.

Engaged to Kenji Tozuka (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) who has a young son Kento, Ichiko is soon to be moving with them to a new home, so life is good. Then the abduction happens and the threads start unravelling. A callous reporter tries to get a comment from Ichiko but she refuses to speak, so he writes a spurious story implicating Ichiko in Tatsuo’s actions, which Yoko reads and promptly sacks Ichiko.

Her dismissal upsets Motoko who has been harbouring feelings for Ichiko to which she is oblivious, hence her advice for Ichiko to stay silent for fear of losing her, but this will soon come to a head and bring dire and destructive consequences for both. But Motoko being in love with Ichiko is curious as she has a boyfriend she regularly talks about, whom we get a glimpse of on her phone wallpaper.

Jumping into the concurrently running second timeline, Ichiko is seeing the hairdresser responsible for her new hairdo, Kazumichi Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu). Younger than her, Kazumichi talks about his never seen girlfriend but is still content to go out with Ichiko. Why does this matter? I think you’ve probably guessed it but watching the film with the non-linear narrative, it’s not so obvious.

Similarly, in this setting, Ichiko’s behaviour is odd to say the least – such as her barking like a dog at night just to disturb her neighbour across the road – Motoko, something Fukada plays with further in a very creepy scene shortly afterwards. Just because there is little in the way of visceral horror to unsettle us doesn’t mean Fukada can’t achieve this by other means, his weapon of choice being people themselves.

As much as this is fraught and painful study of a woman crushed by circumstance and lack of faith from those who know he best – or she thought they did – Fukada holds a mirror up to the vacuity of people automatically assuming the worst in someone without the full facts, swayed by the information but not the context. Not given a chance to explain, Ichiko is summarily outcast – no wonder she ends up spiteful and aggrieved.

Deftly modulating between sympathetic victim and cold avenger, Mariko Tsutsui delivers the performance of a life time. She has played nice and nasty roles before but never in the same character and this is just a wonderfully adroit essaying on Ichiko’s dual sides. She conveys the heartbreak of her decline with incredible tenderness and fragility, yet her angry side is unnerving and edgy, dividing our feelings towards her.

Providing solid support is Mikako Ichikawa, still able to play a convincing 20 something through her gangly appearance despite being 42(!), a nicely turn from her as Motoko. The whole cast are good to be fair, but Tsutsui’s dominance is effortless. Thankfully, through her being so arresting we are caught unaware when the film suddenly ends, only then do we realise so much has been left unresolved.

This might be the deal breaker for some as to deciding their enjoyment of A Girl Missing, but with such masterfully sinuous storytelling and Tsutsui’s majestic performance, I think this can be forgiven. Just as Ichiko should have been.  

Currently streaming as part of the The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme Online Festival Feb 19th – Mar 10th

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