Stolen (2019) Review.

Introduction

Taka Tsubota, the son of Japanese and American parents, has bravely engaged himself to craft a narrative dealing with the phenomenon of abductions of Japanese citizens by North-Korean agents. Up until today, 13 ordinary Japanese citizens have been confirmed to have been abducted by agents of the North Korean regime. But the true number of abductions remains a mystery. What’s even more puzzling is that these abductions happened without any clear motive.

Review

When Tetsuya (Kizuku Ito), the youngest son of the Hiiragi family, is kidnapped by an anti-Japan government agent, the family is forced to fight against Japan’s societal tendency of victim-shaming. While each of the family members – i.e. older sister kaede (Mizuki), the father (Takahiro Ono) and the mother (Miwako Izumi) – tries to deal with this sudden loss, Tetsuya’s older brother Yuichi (Yuki Kawashima), seemingly unperturbed by the kidnapping, starts practicing boxing.

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Stolen introduces the spectator, from the very start, to a family already marked by the abduction. The sensible presence of Tetsuya’s absence – an absence made present by the mother’s anticipation of his return, is shown to have disturbed the normal routines, e.g. the dinner routine, of the family (Narra-note 1). In other words, the mental burden of the continued anticipation of his return has restructured every routine around his absence. Yuichi, for this part, avoids the mental burden of anticipation that holds family life in his grasp by isolating himself and single-mindedly focusing on boxing. He utters only one request to his family-members: to come to his friendly boxing game. Without spoiling too much, we can say that his request is related to certain forgotten truth, a truth of the Hiiragi family as such (Narra-note 2 (spoiler), Psycho-note 1).

Besides the interpersonal drama – i.e. the drama of the mental burden, the family has to undergo other drama’s, i.e. the drama of non-nomination as well as the drama of accusation. The first drama concerns the permission to designate their son as ‘hostage’ and themselves as ‘victims’. Due to a lack of proof, the abduction is put into question. And as the abduction is never shown, the spectator is driven to question if Tetsuya’s disappearance is really abduction or not.

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But instead of investigating the circumstances of Tetsuya’s disappearance – i.e. the ‘truth’, the circumstances of the family becomes, due to the sudden proliferation of rumours and accusations, scrutinized. The drama of accusation have far-reaching consequences for each family member. Tetsuya’s father’s background as a conservative journalist leads some people to think he staged the abduction in order to further his conservative agenda (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). Yuichi’s behaviour is interpreted as expressing cold indifference concerning his brother’s disappearance (Narra-note 3, Narra-note 4 (spoiler)). And Kaede is fired from the advertisement company as the company wants to protect their image.

Eventually, due to the media’s search to find fault in the familial context Tetsuya grew up, his disappearance becomes linked to the problems the family faced in the past, most notably the separation between the parents that took place prior to his abduction and birth (Narra-note 5). This mediatized attack has no other consequence than to force the parents in performing their role as victim on television. This sequence beautifully shows that the only defense one has against the accusing media narratives is to respond with ‘constructed’ and ‘semi-fictional’ narratives. But the well-rehearsed narrative of the father is but a superficial defense solely focused on quelling the rumours and accusations expressed in the media (Narra-note 6, Psycho-note 2).

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This sequence also touches upon the most problematic dimension of media. Even though the media prides itself on its desire to find the truth, the media is, in truth, first and foremost interested in drama. The reason is simple: drama sells well because drama gives consumers enjoyment. The Hiiragi family is thus not victim of the media’s search for truth, but of the media’s search for profitable drama in order to satisfy their consumers. It is the media’s success of exploiting the family’s flaws, their success of turning the familial problems into an enjoyable drama to consume, that comes to problematize the very way each member of the family tries to cope with Tetsuya’s abduction and the way each family member, despite his absence, tries to keep on keep living (See also Narra-note 3 (spoiler)).

The first aspect that makes Stolen so pleasing to watch is the very dynamism of the cinematographical mix. This dynamism is, however, not to be found in the common mix of fixed shots, fluid spatial movement and subtle following movement, but in the subtle shifts from fixed framing to shaky framing. This dynamism gives the framing of Stolen a feel of reality, as if Tsubota was just documenting reality as such. While some of the cinematographical shakiness seem to be caused by technical limitations, this ‘accidental’ shakiness does not fail to further empower the veil of realism.

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The second aspect that makes Stolen so pleasing to watch concerns the application of lighting and colour. The interplay between colour and lighting further corroborates the degree of realism the various narrative spaces have attained because of the cinematographical dynamism. It is, furthermore, the interaction between this naturalistic lightning and the shaky framing, that makes it easier for the spectator to invest in and identify with the drama staged in the narrative.

Of course, the easiness by which the spectator can invest in the drama is also function of the natural performances that animate Tsubota’s family drama (Music-note 1). It is only due to the great performances of Mizuki, Takahiro Ono, and Miwako Izumi that the familial tensions, as empowered by Tetsuya’s abduction and the media’s perverse conduct, are able to become so sensible (Narra-note 7). And Yuki Kawashima, who plays Yuichi impresses with his strong and impactful monologue. It is, furthermore, his performance that makes the final so touching and powerful.

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Tsubota’s Stolen is, in short, this year’s indie-gem. Not only is his narrative a powerful critique on the perverse sides of media and the destructive power their insatiable desire for drama has, Stolen is, at the same time one of the most touching and a-political statement on the importance of familial bonds in dealing with loss, a loss that impacts each family member differently.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: The mental burden of the anticipation together with the mental strain caused by the media will eventually lead the mother to blame herself. If she had divorced her husband 16 years ago, so she states, she she could have prevented everything.

Narra-note 2: Eventually, the father will use the opportunity of his son’s disappearance to further his conservative agenda. For him, at least that is the way he puts it, it is his way of doing something for his abducted son.

Of course, Tetsuya’s mother sees this differently. For her, his actions are nothing but an opportunistic attempt to relaunch his journalistic career.

Narra-note 3: The saddest thing is that the father, just like the media, misreads Yuichi’s behaviour in the same way.

Narra-note 4: With his boxing, Yuichi will be able to confront his family with the forgotten truth of their family happiness. By forcing his father, his mother, and his sister to remember this happiness, he is able to show them that they, given the current situation, can only survive by becoming family again.

In this sense, Yuichi shows that they should not cope with his abduction as individuals, but as a family.

Narra-note 5: The media eventually succeeds in proving that the familial situation of the Hiiragi’s is problematic. With a bit of luck, the media succeeds in forcing the father as well as the mother into admitting that they do not know their own children. The press unearths, in other words, the lack of communication between the family members.

Narra-note 6: That Tetsuya’s parents had relational problems before his disappearance does not invalidate the negative impact his absence has on the already flawed interpersonal functioning of the family.

Additionally, the pre-existing problematic familial context does not invalidate their current position as victims.

Narra-note 7: These tensions are most sensible in the scene where the father starts blaming the mother and son for doing nothing and his daughter for having done nothing for Tetsuya. Let’s note in passing that it is only by being vocalized that these tensions become painfully sensible.

Psycho-note 1: Stolen beautifully illustrates the fact that some of the choices of the son, i.e. boxing, are in function of the significant Others, i.e. his father and mother. It is, in other words, because his father valued boxing that Yuichi choses boxing in high school.

Psycho-note 2: The father fails to acknowledge this own failed position as father un until the end of the narrative. While his failed position is not related to Tetsuya’s abduction per se, his failure is related to the discontent of the mother, sister, and older brother and thus the disfunctioning of the family.

Music-note 1:  The subtle use of musical pieces turns Stolen into an intimate portrait of a suffering family, a family that suffers not only from their loss but also from the society’s failure to symbolically acknowledge their loss.

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