Stories of women falling from grace on screen might not represent anything new, but few possess the cryptic sensibility of A Girl Missing, the latest film from ascendant Japanese director Kôji Fukada. The woman at the center of it all is Mariko Tsutsui’s Ichiko, a kindly and modest elder-care nurse for the Oishi family. She’s more than just a service provider to them, especially for the ailing matriarch’s granddaughter Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa), who views Ichiko with an escalating fondness as she becomes inspired to become a nurse herself.
However, Ichiko’s status as an esteemed presence in the household comes into question when the family’s teenage daughter Saki disappears and Ichiko’s erratic nephew Tatsuo turns out to be behind it. Though Ichiko had no direct involvement in the kidnapping, innuendo and suggested association threaten to unravel both her livelihood and sanity. She soon hangs on only by the favor of Motoko, whose mentorlike adoration of Ichiko has blossomed into an outright infatuation.
This narrative might otherwise breakdown into hysterics were it not for Fukada’s careful deployment of ambiguity and mystery. Rather than playing out like a standard linear crime story, A Girl Missing floats freely — though not unintelligibly — between reality and fantasy in ways that suggest powerful connections across time and space. Even when the film reveals a little more knowledge around how the pieces of this temporal puzzle fit together, Fukada continues to obscure and occlude any definitive understanding or interpretation. The result is a thriller that captivates even as it confounds.
Back in 2019, I caught up with Fukada in New York City while he was in town for the film’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. Full disclosure, we did get into a bit of spoiler territory as I pressed him on questions which he raises but does not answer within A Girl Missing. Our discussion covers his unique treatment of time, how sound and editing contribute to the film’s hypnotic effect and why he’s so fond of shooting through windows.
Marshall Shaffer: How did you determine the narrative structure of A Girl Missing? Can you explain a little bit more about how the film operates on two timelines but doesn’t really have flashbacks?
Kôji Fukada: I have created simultaneous timelines. The past is not a flashback. The result is confusing, but it explores human duality.
MS: Some of the shifts between the timelines happen through a narrative motivation, but others are a little bit more thematic. It might be a scene happening in the same location, or the connection between the paparazzi lights and the strobe lights in the club. What was your process for deciding how to make the transitions between the timelines?
KF: It’s all written in the script; only sometimes did it change in the editing process. My aim was to gradually lead the audience into a realization. I was hoping that around the 15-minute mark, you would understand. But, until then, you would be confused as to what the relationship between Ichiko and the Oisha [sisters] was. But, as to how I’m creating that switch, it’s all about dropping these hints and when to give one to reveal certain information and when not to. As for using the same place such as the zoo, that is for me a visual play, and I wanted to leave you with the impression that time is happening simultaneously.
MS: A Girl Missing is a lot like your last film, Harmonium, in the sense that they both depict the strong undertow of a sordid past that the characters cannot quite escape. But in Harmonium, we never actually see that time itself — we just observe it in the way the characters act. Did you ever give thought to doing something similar with this film?
KF: Well, actually, I think I’m doing something very similar in this film, as I don’t show you what Tatsuo does with Saki, which is a crucial point in the story in which we can only imagine he fell in love at first sight. But we don’t see the events that happened there. So, I think it’s very important to hide the most important information.
MS: There’s a running motif in the film that depicts characters, primarily the women, as shot from outside of windows — as well as one powerful reversal where we observe Ichiko from inside the window. What inspired this, and what effect did you intend for it to create?
KF: Ever since I was a teen, I was a cinephile, but films that I really liked, that felt good watching, had frames within frames. It’s just something that ineffably feels good. That’s something I’ve seen in [Yasujirō] Ozu and [Alfred] Hitchcock. Also, the window has the power to convey layers of space and time. So, you can show two different rooms and one room in two different times. Basically, it opens up the possibilities for complex, multi-time sequences.
MS: There’s a scene that depicts what could potentially be finality for Ichiko’s story, but we can’t place it on a timeline because it’s the only time we see her with that hair color. Why did you place that scene where you did — close to the end, but not the actual conclusion — in the film’s narrative?
KF: So, that scene is the biggest mystery I leave for the audience in my film, and that’s the scene in which I most leave it to the audience’s imagination. It might be a dream. It might be her psychological space. Or it might have actually happened in reality to her within those four years that we see.
MS: If it had been the final scene in the film, do you think that might have led people to add weight to the case that it was her committing suicide?
KF: It’s the penultimate scene. One thing I really wanted to make sure was that she doesn’t die in this film. I wanted to capture the cruelty of Ichiko’s character, who fails to ultimately find vengeance. She fails to forgive, and she fails to kill, and she fails to die.
MS: In A Girl Missing, you render familiar sounds — traffic signals, doorbells, sirens — into shrieking terror for the ears. At what point in the development of the film did this audio component of the project emerge, and how did you go about executing it?
KF: Sound design was already a crucial tool in the script writing process. I already had put an emphasis [on it] when I was writing. As for the ending, where we have the crescendo of the construction sounds, originally, I was thinking of ending with the dramatic sequence with Motoko and Ichiko meeting once again. Then I decided to change it to a purely visual and auditory sequence, which I thought would be richer.
MS: Towards the end of the film, Ichiko begins to lose her grasp on objective reality — or, at the very least, the film visualizes some of her mental delusions. Is the audience meant to ponder if she was this way from the start of the events in the film or if the events she undergoes drive her mad?
KF: I think the answer is both. She does gradually unravel her humanist components, and then the events that she experiences cause her the dream sequences and cause her to become more animalistic and more lonely. But ultimately, we are animals. Humans are animals. So, it’s something that she originally had that was brought out.
MS: In your director’s notes, you talk about Ichiko being a “helpless bystander” in her own life and “the absurdity of our existence.” What do you want viewers to do with that knowledge –accept it? Resist it? Ignore it?
KF: I don’t think film should force any certain emotion onto the audience. I think that art should be a mirror of yourself. So, I want you to see, to grow and to think, “Oh, I wouldn’t think that way, or I would think that way; I don’t relate to certain parts, or I do relate to certain parts.” Through that, through watching the film, more about yourself is revealed. So, that’s how I want you to confront my films.
I think one very representative example is right before Ichiko is accelerating and Motoko is on the street. There are two types of reactions. There are people who would say, “Yes, press there [the gas pedal]!” and there are people who say, “No, no, don’t!” So, I think that’s one of the points you can notice which personality you have.
Translation by Amber Noé.
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