Around three years after delivering his award-winning Harmonium (2016), Koji Fukada is finally back with a new filmic product: A Girl Missing (2020). Can Fukada deliver a narrative as psychologically chilling as Harmonium or will his newest exploration of complex and multifaceted dimension of trauma fail to live up to his prior narrative? Let us find in our review.
Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui), has been working as a private nurse for the Oishi family for so long that she has almost become part of it. Besides caring for Toko, the materfamilias, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa), the eldest sister of the family, has made Ichiko her study partner and, later, her confidant.
Then, one day, Motoko’s younger sister, Saki (Miyu Ogawa) disappears. One week after her disappearance, she is found and Ichiko’s own nephew Tatsuo Suzuki (Ren Sudo) is apprehended as her kidnapper.
Koji Fukada’s A Girl Missing is a narrative that explores, with much nuance, the subjective effects of leaving something about one’s desire unsaid. That his exploration of the relation and subjective effects of the unsaid is so engaging is all due to the a-chronological structure of the narrative. By shifting back and forth in the chronology of the narrative, Fukada has turned his narrative into something like a riddle – a thoughtful play of signifiers crafting questions and revealing fragments of meaning. The main question that structures the narrative, a question born from the very first chronological contrast in A Girl Missing, is nothing other than the following: Why did Ichiko stop working for the Oishi family? It is by engendering this question in the spectator’s mind that Fukada succeeds in engaging the spectator with his narrative from the very first minutes.
The myriad of questions, even the main structuring one, that propel the narrative forward are, in fact, all different sides of two interrelated riddles waiting to be solved: the riddle of Ichiko Shirakawa as subject and the riddle of Motoko as subject. As the second riddle is largely subordinate to the first, we feel it is better to understand A Girl Missing as an inventive psychological character-study than a straightforward mystery film.
In his character-study, Fukada explores the destructive power of mass media. Fukada shows the fact that reporters, in their desperate attempt to provide pleasure for the masses, do not hesitate to ruin the lives of those related to the culprit as well as the victim herself. Furthermore, he shows that well-known fact that the most destructive aspect of media lies in the fact that media does not only pleasure its consumers, but also molds its consumers’ minds. It is the latter that gives media the power to destroys relationships and alienate the subject they are exploiting for the masses’ pleasure.
Yet, the exploration of the impact that media can have on subjects is not what makes Fukuda’s latest so satisfying – In truth, Fukada reiterates much that has already been said (and better said) about the destructive thirst of media. The true beauty of A Girl Missing resides in his nuanced exploration of subjective darkness, a darkness that, up until the finale, is only sensible in the narrative’s periphery. Within the otherwise rather mundane slice-of-life-like drama, there are small elements – be it certain signifiers, acts or some gestures – that reveal that, behind the façade of mundanity, unexpressed subjective conflicts are at work.
More concretely, Fukada explores, in a powerful but nuanced manner, the conflict between the dimension of the imaginary, a dimension riddled with misunderstandings, and the dimension of the unsaid, that what is unable to be brought into play in a relation between two subjects, but still dictates the subject’s speech and comportment. Everything that transpires in the narrative, from the desire to take revenge to the moments of mental breakdown – i.e. the anxiety attacks, is function of a miscommunication between a subject that cannot vocalize its unsaid and another subject that fails to understand the echo of the unsaid in the other’s discourse.
The composition of A Girl Missing offers a balanced mix between static shots and following movement. Less common is the use of spatial movement. When Fukada utilizes spatial movement, it is either to focus on the emotional state of Ichiko Shirakawa or to infuse some subtle tension in the narrative. The composition of A Girl Missing features some truly visually pleasing shots, either by utilizing geometry in a thoughtful way or by using the compositional strength of mirrors and the geometrical aspects of interiors.
Of course, the fact that A Girl Missing is such a satisfying narrative is also due to the great performances. While all performances are great, the two performances that stand out are the performance of Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa, both bringing the emotional and psychological trajectory of their character in a believable, nuanced, and engaging way to life.
With A Girl Missing, Koji Fukada delivers another amazing narrative. His latest narrative succeeds, due to its inventive a-chronological structure and the powerful performances by Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa, in exploring, in a nuanced but moving manner, the destructive power of the media, the danger of leaving things unsaid, and the fact that mundane or empty speech is, by its reliance on the imaginary dimension, structured by misrecognition.