When I first saw Shinzo Katayama’s Siblings of The Cape (2018) at the Tokyo International Film Festival, it was not a big surprise to see some spectators leave the cinema before the credits rolled. Not all spectators can stomach a story about a brother, who due to sudden financial problems, decides to prostitute his mentally disabled sister.
While Missing exploits the same dynamic of a subject pushed to the edge due to the failure of society to provide a decent safety net, Katayama offers a much easier to stomach thriller. Yet, can his thriller engage us as much as his Siblings Of The Cape?
One night, Kaede Harada (Aio Ito) is called by the police to come pick up her ‘shoplifting’ father Satoshi (Jiro Sato) at the supermarket. On their way home, he tells Kaede that he saw Terumi Yamauchi (Hiroya Shimizu), fugitive serial killer, on the train. Kaede does not believe him. At home, he loudly fantasizes of getting the three-million-yen reward for finding him. Kaede tells him to stop dreaming and focus on work. Yet, the very next day, Kaede’s father is gone.
Fearing the worst – he is murdered, she starts looking for him but alas he is nowhere to be found. She starts hanging posters around the neighbourhood together with her teacher and one of her classmates. Yet, suddenly, she receives a message from her father that he is okey. While taking one poster down, she happens to see a picture of Terumi Yamauchi and realizes that he, under her father’s name, was working at the construction site.
Missing delivers a dramatic thriller painted within a societal critical frame. Katayama utilizes the failure of the Japanese society to decently support the poor to stage how a societal system can push its subjects to pursue dangerous paths to escape his financial struggle. Within this frame, Katayama expertly weaves a fluid genre-blending tapestry of heart-warming moments, poignant familial drama, sensible tension, and surprising revelations.
The spectator’s pleasure is, of course, function of this well-woven emotional fabric, but also of the interesting narrative structure. With two flashbacks, Katayama does not only create cliff-hanger-like effects, but also changes the perspective to grant the spectator a glance at the logic of other characters than Kaede. These explorations of the past do not only deliver certain surprising revelations, but also increase the tension that marks the first cliff-hanger moment.
Before the first flash-back, the focus is on Kaede. She is, in her search for her father, confronted with a kind of other (e.g. her teacher, the nun of the orphanage, … etc.) that in trying to help effaces her signifiers and misrecognizes the fabric of the father-daughter bond. The Other has, albeit it remains unvocalized, unanimously decided that he has skipped town to avoid his debtors, but, for Kaede, her father’s search for Yamauchi is instigated by a desire to break the shackles of his financial constraint to create a better future for him and his daughter – a future where he can, once again, exploit a table-tennis club. Yet, is that truly the reason why her father ran off? Does she truly understand her father?
The first flashback changes the perspective to Terumi Yamauchi. Due to this perspective change, we soon are introduced to the fact that Yamauchi, often, searches for others’ who have a death desire. As he offers himself as tool for euthanasia or assisted suicide to the other, it seems improbable that the ultimate goal of his violence is a simple rush of satisfaction.
Nevertheless, it is evident that a quantum of sexual excitement accompanies the act of murder. For Yamauchi, the only way to experience something like sex is through his murderous violence. Yet, while murdering is sexual for him, its immediate goal is not some form of ejaculatory satisfaction. The repetition that marks the many murders he commits slowly reveals that he seeks to recreate a fixated fetishistic image – immobile feet with white socks – that enables him to masturbate and ejaculate.
Via a second flashback, the spectator is granted a glance at the dynamic between Satoshi Harada and his wife Kimiko (Toko Narushima). He is a dedicated husband, but his love for her prevents him from taking his wife’s death wish seriously and accept that she has lost any desire to stay alive and falter towards her death. Can Satoshi come to terms with his wife’s desire? If so, what can he offer her?
Katayama created a composition that rhythmically concatenates static and dynamic sequences and effectively supports the emotional flow of his narrative (Cine-note 1). He blends his shots together well to deliver not only various moments where the spectator’s fearful anticipation is fleetingly raised but also more action-rich moments that engage the spectator. To emphasize the tension that marks both moments, Katayama often decorates these sequences with dramatically-flavoured and rhythmical musical pieces. The subtle tremble that, at certain times, comes to mark the frame is utilized to heighten the tension but also the reverberate the inner subjective turmoil or unrest that marks Kaede or Satoshi.
Static moments are, in this sense, not only used to frame speech-interactions between characters like Kaede and her father, but also to deliver notes of emotionality that offer a glance at different relational dynamics. Yet, a static moment that focuses on a facial expression only becomes an emotional note in Missing when its is accompanied with subtle affecting music (Cine-note 2). It is by offering the spectator such touching emotional notes that Katayama succeeds in engaging the spectator in his characters and their logic, be it Kaede who desires to find her father and re-attain what she has lost, Satoshi who suddenly disappears, or Terumi Yamauchi who concatenates murders.
The main reason why the emotional flow of the narrative is so effective are the performances of the main cast. The performance that impresses the most is, without the doubt, Aio Ito’s. With her rich emotional range, she makes the tangle of conflicting emotions that marks her character extremely engaging – in short, she steals the show. While some spectators might struggle with the shifts in Hiroya Shimizu’s performance, these shifts allows the contrast between the pseudo-philosophical explanation he spouts to entrap the other and the coldness by which he murder to recreate his revered fetish-image effective.
With Missing, Shinzo Katayama delivers one of the most satisfying drama-thrillers this year. The amazing performances of Aio Ito, Jiro Sato, Hiroya Shimizu do not merely enable the rich emotional flow to engage the spectator, but gives the carefully constructed finale the finale its power to put the spectator on the edge of his seat and deliver its gut-wrenching punch. Highly recommended.
Cine-note 1: Katayama delivers many satisfying tracking and spatial-dynamic shots within his composition. Thenatural colour- and lighting schemes play an important role in creating a visually pleasant experience for the spectator.
Cine-note 2: In some instances, slow spatial dynamism is used instead of a static shot to deliver an emotional moment. Yet, these ‘dynamic’ moments are static in the sense that the focus of the shot, i.e. the facial expression, does not change.