Early on in Koji Fukada’s A Girl Missing (Yokogao), protagonist Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) is spying on people from an apartment window. We hear the faint sound of a dog barking in the background. And then suddenly, inexplicably, a loud noise breaks the near-silence, jarring enough that several people in my theater jumped. As it continues, we realize that it’s Ichiko. She’s barking like a dog, and the sound is genuinely unnerving.
It’s a hint that A Girl Missing will never allow its audience to be complacent. Just when you think you know the characters and who to side with, some new piece of information will be revealed. By the end, you may still wonder who deserves sympathy.
Kōji Fukada has gotten exceptionally good at crafting layered stories of flawed (but not always evil) people and the seemingly small mistakes they make that end up costing them more than they could have imagined. Hospitalite (Kantai) was quirky and surprising and Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu) took that film’s premise and turned it into an intense, wrenching tragedy. And now we have A Girl Missing, yet another meditation on the fragility of human relationships and the mysteries of human motivations, which feels like his most polished work yet.
The film moves back and forth between the present and several years before, when protagonist Ichiko was a caregiver for an elderly woman, as well as being a quasi-mother figure to the woman’s granddaughters, junior high school student Saki (Miyu Ogawa) and the slightly older and more pensive Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa). Mariko Tsutsui plays a lot of caregivers—she was the one responsible for nursing her husband’s bedridden parents in the underrated short film NEET of the Living Dead, and she tragically ended up caring for her severely injured daughter in Harmonium. In those two roles she beautifully embodied dedication and sincerity but also a bone-deep weariness, with the occasional flare of resentment that, like so many Japanese women, she was expected to do this backbreaking work alone.
In A Girl Missing, though, Ichiko seems to genuinely love the work that she does, as well as her role as surrogate mother to Motoko and Saki and to the cheerful son of her fiance, a doctor. But as the film deftly moves between past and present, sometimes showing us conversations in the exact same space, years apart, we begin to feel a mounting sense of unease. Present-day Ichiko (who has changed her name to Risa and altered her hairstyle) is clearly haunted by something, and that fiance and the family that she cared for are noticeably absent from her life.
Though reviews and the film’s trailers have given away more details of the plot, it’s really best to go in knowing less. Suffice it to say that when something terrible happens, Ichiko is essentially deemed guilty by association. But it’s more complicated than that, as the frustrating (but understandable) choices of multiple characters are revealed to have converged to create a perfect storm of tragedy.
In its raw depiction of a woman being victimized by vicious rumors and a media frenzy, A Girl Missing immediately invites comparisons to 2018’s The Hungry Lion (Ueta Raion), another slow burn tragedy about the vicious power of gossip and bullying. (A Girl Missing also features stressful scenes of a woman hiding in a house while people repeatedly ring her doorbell, the pursuers’ impassive faces popping up on the apartment security camera screen.) But where Lion was about an innocent young girl who became a punching bag because someone always has to be the punching bag, A Girl Missing weaves a story of multiple betrayals, deceptions, and desires. Ichiko doesn’t deserve what happens to her, but watching some of the choices she and others make, you begin to question how much sympathy we should feel.
The film’s juxtaposition of two different time periods also reminded me of the brilliant We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), which moves between present day Tilda Swinton, a barely-breathing, beaten down, solitary woman, and her past self, a put-together, stylish professional with a family. We know that something truly terrible must divide those two timelines and those two people, but the horrifying extent of it isn’t fully revealed until the very end of the film. The incident in A Girl Missing isn’t as shocking as the one in Kevin, but the former’s slow build provides a similar sense of can’t-look-away dread.
Mariko Tsutsui is one of the most talented actresses working in Japan today, and here, after supporting roles in Fukada’s Harmonium and the aforementioned The Hungry Lion, she finally gets to take center stage. Her performance is never less than astonishing. We feel that deep divide between her present and past selves, but even within single scenes she shifts effortlessly between emotions, conveying volumes with a slight change in posture or facial expression. The film’s Japanese title, which roughly translates to “side profile,” reminds us that we never really see Ichiko’s whole self. (In youth-obsessed Japan it’s also incredibly refreshing to see a woman over fifty in a role that allows her to be sexual, and in a film that frequently frames her as beautiful and alluring, though Tsutsui’s amazing physique and model-gorgeous good looks certainly make it less risky.)
But Mikako Ichikawa also deserves credit for her performance as the arguably more complicated Motoko. The character slowly transitions from sympathetic to frightening, not necessarily because she’s evil, but because just when we think we’ve got her figured out, she reveals a new layer. There’s a conversation scene with Ichiko in which Motoko’s face is filmed almost entirely in shadow, indicating that while her words might sound convincing, her true motives remain hidden. It may not be subtle, but it’s effective.
Like 2018’s Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku), the final moments of A Girl Missing leave us with plenty of lingering questions—about who we should sympathize with, about why certain characters made the choices they did, about what really happened in scenes that were only described by third parties. But these don’t feel like loose ends. Fukada seems to understands that, ultimately, uncertainties may be the most compelling part of the story.