A Girl Missing (dir. Koji Fukada, 2019) is all mood. The film’s non-linear narrative weaves between past and present, shifting perspective from Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), caring nurse, and Risa, Ichiko transformed, her happy life shattered by a relative’s crime. Dipping into the absurd, the film is a chilling thriller, an eerie mood infiltrating its entirety. Entitled yokogao (side profile) in Japanese, Fukuda attempts to investigate the incomplete perception of others via face value. Risa embodies pure vengeance; she becomes––like the film––a hollow force of emotion. Ultimately, A Girl Missing is all mood and nothing more.
Fittingly, the film begins in a hair salon, a locus of transformation. Risa’s (and Ichiko’s) hair undergoes several changes: long black locks pulled back in a ponytail; short brown curls framing the face; forest green hair, it’s unnaturalness on display; and wisps of white sprouting on top of black, showing signs of age. These transformations serve as a constant in the film’s structure, allowing the audience to parse the otherwise difficult and abrupt transitions from timeline to timeline. They embody the film’s preoccupation with superficiality, which is also the film’s downfall
Ichiko works as an in-home nurse for a family’s aging grandmother. Though she cares for the grandmother, she has close ties with the entire family. She tutors daughters Saki (Miyu Ozawa) and Motoko Oishi (Mikako Ichikawa), the latter of whom she has a decidedly romantic affection for. In a twisted set of events, Saki is kidnapped by Ichiko’s nephew Tatsuo Suzuki (Ren Sudo). Influenced by Motoko, Ichiko decides to keep her relation to Tatsuo secret. Her secrecy fails her, the media soon revealing and exaggerating her proximity to the crime, implicating her as guilty. Any sense of security crumbles for Ichiko. Motoko leaks a secret told to her in confidence, effectively ruining their relationship and destroying Ichiko’s public image. This sets in motion Ichiko’s evolution into Risa, a woman wholly captured by a merciless vengeance.
A Girl Missing seems to test the waters of social commentary, dipping its toes in ever so slightly. Why are men never punished for their actions? Why must women suffer on their part? Saki is the victim of kidnapping, but she is ridiculed for being raped; though Tatsuo goes to juvenile detention, and the film shows none of his time there, he escapes the grasp of society’s mockery. Motoko and Ichiko/Risa’s relationship, simmering with tension––sexual and otherwise––revolves around men. The heterosexual male gaze that shades the film destroys it. The characters’ complexity and any of the gender commentary evaporates, leaving behind a tired arch of lesbian lovers pent on destroying each other. Jeanette Catsouli writes:
“…[Ichiko/Risa’s] bifurcated personality — unhinged stalker and kindly caregiver, perpetrator and victim — is depicted with relentless severity. What’s missing here is one living, breathing woman.”
Indeed, Motoko and Ichiko/Risa’s obsessiveness with each other and with ruining each other dominates their respective characters, framing their totality.
Paradoxically, the personification of vengeance is both the film’s Achilles heel and its greatest strength. Thanks to Mariko Tsutsui’s captivating performance, the film delivers an emotional punch like no other. Just as revenge is hollow, A Girl Missing leaves the audience empty, sans-catharsis.
*A Girl Missing (dir. Koji Fukada, 2019) is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
Catsoulis, Jeannette. “‘A Girl Missing’ Review: In Two Minds.” The New York Times, 30 July
Loayza, Beatrice. “The engrossing puzzle-box thriller A Girl Missing loses sight of its pieces.”
AVClub, 29 July 2020, https://film.avclub.com/the-engrossing-puzzle-box-thriller-a-girl-missing-loses-1844532754.