Kôji Fukada’s latest feature, A Girl Missing (Yokogao), continues the director’s approach with revenge dramas in which the concept of victims and culprits are two relative notions. Ichiko Shirakawa, a former nurse who first introduces herself as Risa Uchida, identifies with the anxiety and decay of Piet Mondrian’s “Sunflower” painting rather than Vincent van Gogh’s pure depiction of the same flowers. Visiting a museum, her gaze lingers on this piece of art long enough to connect the flower’s rotting details with the loss of her privilege. It is the perfect metaphor for her transformation from a compassionate, kind and affectionate caregiver into a vindictive person who’s lost everything.
It’s the Japanese director’s trademark to follow different timelines to give his story depth and layering, and A Girl Missing is no exception in this regard. The present and the past coexist not only as a storytelling device, but more as a means to support the character development. Ichiko is a private nurse for terminally ill patients who benefits from the acceptance and integration into the three-generation Oishi family. She not only eases the pain of the suffering grandmother Tôko, but also serves as a tutor and model for the two granddaughters, Saki and Motoko. Ichiko seems to have acquired a perfect work-life balance through her engagement to Dr. Totsuka and relationships with colleagues who appreciate and respect her. But as usual with Fukada’s films, an event disrupts the equilibrium of the plot to turn the protagonist’s life upside down when Tatsuo, Ichiko’s nephew, kidnaps Saki. Although the young girl is found apparently unaffected and the criminal is jailed, Ichiko feels morally responsible because she introduced the culprit to the victim. Since Saki didn’t actually see her offender, Ichiko’s involvement is hidden, as she is advised by the victim’s elder sister, Motoko, to remain silent. This peculiar request is A Girl Missing’s driving force, as hidden motivations and conflicting desires come to the surface.
When Ichiko’s genuine trust is betrayed, her life decisively changes 180 degrees. As a consequence of not speaking up when she should have, Ichiko gradually loses her job, along with her future family and, ultimately, social status and respect. This is an interesting nuance, as the protagonist didn’t necessarily do anything bad, but hiding the truth makes her complicit. Like in Harmonium, no conversations or gestures are accidental, as Fukada puts in motion a snowball effect not only to shatter a character’s life into pieces, but to reflect on the perfidy and underlying conflicts of Japanese society. After some inappropriate remarks to Motoko, the paparazzi hunt Ichiko down and sensationalist press coverage has devastating effects on her life. The consequences of Ichiko’s silence don’t feel plausible, yet exaggeration is a tool that Fukada often relies upon to prove his point. While some characters and side stories might feel underdeveloped, the tension between Ichiko and Motoko compensates for said shortcomings. The devil is in the details, though, and one should appreciate the subtle cinematography signed by Kenichi Negishi (Harmonium), as he employs suggestive framings of the characters, as their interactions change with the camera’s focal lengths during the vengeance portion of the film. Like a fish out of water, the new Ichiko, now Risa Uchida searching for revenge, borrows Motoko’s gesture of inhaling to relax. A shadow of the successful woman she’s been, Ichiko/Risa draws her strength from the past. But as her revenge plan progresses, her humane nature struggles to come to surface.
With the Japanese title Yokogao meaning “side profile,” Fukada raises an interesting question about culpability and responsibility. Is Ichiko guilty because she endangered the victim by introducing her to the criminal, or is this an unfortunate coincidence? The stylised percussion elements (Hiroyuki Onogawa) accompany the protagonist’s mishaps as a possible sentence drags her down; innocence and good intentions are punishable by society’s disruptive functioning. While some metaphors seem rather self-explanatory (like Ichiko’s hands being tainted by red paint), Fukada effectively develops a multifaceted character by transforming Ichiko from a collateral victim into an accomplice. A Girl Missing highlights the importance of knowing when to speak up and when to stay silent.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.