A chance encounter, a crime committed by a relative and well-ordered lives, in a country famous for them, fall to pieces in the Japanese drama “A Girl Missing.”
It’s another intimate portrait of a mannered, particularly Japanese way of unraveling by Kôji Fukada, whose equally downbeat “Harmonium” collected a Cannes prize a couple of years back.
Japanese cinema often reflects the reserve, the don’t-rock-the-boat/don’t-upset quiet desperation of a culture imbued with a fear of offending. Kukada plays with that, like a cinematic Yakuza, his characters acting out their stories in painfully understated ways until it serves his purpose to startle or even shock.
Mariko Tsutsui plays Ichiko, a home healthcare nurse who has worked for the Oishi family for years, tending to their aged, fading matriach, an artist. Reserved, compassionate and conscientious Ichiko has had such an impact on their lives that Oishi granddaughters Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and younger sister Saki (Miyu Ozawa) are studying nursing, with Ichiko helping them prep to pass exams in the field.
Ichiko has a long-standing relationship with Dr. Tozuka (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), one that’s turned romantic. They’re about to marry and move, with his young son, into a new home.
But when Saki is kidnapped, all these ordered lives are shattered and all that reserve comes undone.
Ichiko’s nephew had dropped off some books during a cafe study session she was having with the two Oishi girls. When Saki is found and released, unharmed, it was nephew Tatsuo who had taken her.
Ichiko’s instinct is to be contrite, apologize to the girl’s mother and perhaps her nursing office, to tell her husband-to-be. But Motoko fears what will come from that, a rift with the family that will lead to Ichiko’s firing.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” she argues (in Japanese with English subtitles).
It turns out, her motives aren’t that cut-and-dried. Motoko has her own secret. Now she and Ichiko can have a secret together.
Here’s where “A Girl Missing” is tricky. There is a parallel story that amounts to a second timeline, something not the least bit clear the first few instances it is introduced. “Risa” visits a new hairdresser (Sôsuke Ikematsu) for a new look. She is forward, chatty, almost clingy with him.
They “bump into” each other. She says she’s new in the neighborhood, asks for his number so that she can have “a friend, here.” And we see her pretending to walk to her building, seeing him leave, and moving on. She’s stalking him.
Whatever she calls herself, Risa is Ichiko. Makeup may add some time and a hint of madness to her face, and Tsutsui (of “Harmonium”) transforms herself in this guise. This is happening long after the kidnapping. What has turned her this way, and what is she up to?
I appreciate Fukada’s style, even as it tests the viewer’s patience. There’s a serenity to the decorum and probity of the characters that’s almost comforting, until they let the us past that way the Japanese present themselves to the world.
An inappropriate bit of over-sharing here, reserve tossed aside for a shockingly sexual moment of sext-bullying there, and the veneer is shattered and brittle lives and relationships just snap.
“A Girl Missing” won’t be to every taste. I was flummoxed at the huge press feeding frenzy that Ichiko faces when her blood connection to the kidnapper is revealed. This goes on for days and days, so much so that I felt compelled to check Japan’s crime statistics and wonder at the size of its suburban press corps.
No WAY this story would have “legs” like that anywhere else.
Perhaps that’s another instance of Fukada playing with cultural expectations. The lack of firearms drives the homicide and violent crime rate down, so any crime of this nature would be a somewhat rare thing. And a country with Japan’s long and infamous reputation for creative pornography just might fixate on a teen girl’s kidnapping.
In any event, Fukada has delivered another subtle, startling and demanding drama about lives upended in a country that rarely gives us any hint this sort of thing happens, a film built on stoic performances that give up their reserve when the worst kind of pressure is applied.
MPAA Rating: sex, nudity
Cast: Mariko Tsutsui, Mikako Ichikawa, Miyu Ozawa , Sôsuke Ikematsu, Mitsuru Fukikoshi and Ren Sudo.
Credits: Directed by Kôji Fukada, script by Kazumasa Yonemitsu and Kôji Fukada. A Film Movement + release.
Running time: 1:53