August 9, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Kôji Fukada
Japanese with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the psychological drama “A Girl Missing” has an all-Japanese cast representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A home nurse becomes involved in the drama of her employer’s family when the family’s teenage daughter disappears and secrets threaten to tear relationships apart.
Culture Audience: “A Girl Missing” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films that have layers of psychological intrigue.
On the surface, “A Girl Missing” (which takes place in Japan) seems to be a mystery about a teenage student who goes missing. But the movie is actually an intricate psychological drama about how this missing-persons case affects two women who are close to the missing girl. Written and directed by Kôji Fukada, “A Girl Missing” also has some underlying social commentary about society’s pressures affect how women express their sexuality, and how secrets and lies can have ripple effects that go beyond someone who wants to keep something hidden.
“A Girl Missing” isn’t in chronological order, but one thing that viewers will eventually see is that the story shows what life was like for middle-aged home nurse Ichiko Shirakawa (played by Mariko Tsutsui) before and after the disappearance of a teenage daughter in her employer’s family. Ichiko is a mild-mannered and responsible caretaker for the ailing Tôko (played by Hisako Ôkata), the grandmother matriarch of the family.
Ichiko reports to Toko’s daughter Yoko Oishi (played by Nahoko Kawasumi), the person in the family who has the power to fire Ichiko. However, Ichiko works for an agency called Cocon Nursing Station, so if her services are no longer needed in a home, she can probably find another job through the agency.
Yoko has two daughters who live in the family home: Motoko (played by Mikako Ichikawa), who is in her early 20s, and Saki (Miyu Ogawa), who is in her mid-teens. Saki is a very well-behaved bright student, while Motoko seems to be living an aimless life, since she’s not in school and doesn’t appear to have a job. However, Motoko does mention to Ichiko one day she’s thinking about becoming a nurse just like Ichiko. Yoko’s husband (Motoko and Saki’s father) is barely seen in the movie, presumably because he works a lot away from home.
Motoko helps Ichiko take care of Tôko when she can. Despite their big age difference, Ichiko and Motoko have developed a close friendship where they feel comfortable doing social activities together outside of the home, such as having lunch. One day, Ichiko and Motoko make plans to have lunch together at a local café. Saki hears about those plans and asks to join them.
While they’re all seated at a café table, it’s clear that Saki is a very diligent student because she’s working on some classwork at the table. Therefore, she isn’t really paying attention when Ichiko’s introverted nephew Tastuo Suzuki (played by Ren Sudo) suddenly appears in the café. Ichiko is surprised to see Tastuo (who is the son of Ichiko’s sister Risa), and they make small talk before he leaves.
Shortly after this lunch, Saki disappears after last being seen on surveillance video leaving her cram school. What happens next in the story involves a web of intrigue and betrayal where Ichiko has to make some choices that will affect the rest of her life. It’s enough to say that she goes through an emotional transformation that upends her previously comfortable and safe life, which includes being engaged to a doctor named Kenji Tozuka (played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi), who’s the single father of a pre-teen son. (Ichiko has no biological kids of her own, and the movie doesn’t mention any previous romances that she might have had.)
Motoko, who’s not happy that Ichiko is getting married, has a boyfriend too. His name is Kazumichi Yoneda (played by Sôsuke Ikematsu), and he plays a pivotal role in the story. Motoko repeatedly asks Ichiko if she’s sure that she’s going get married, and Ichiko always says yes. Motoko asks Ichiko if she’d like to get a place with Motoko so that they can live in together as roommates.
Ichiko declines the offer and tactfully suggests to Motoko that she move in with Kazumichi instead. It’s Ichiko’s polite way of telling Motoko that she needs to mind her own business and get a life. The reason why Motoko disapproves of Ichiko getting married to Dr. Tozuka is hinted at early on, and it becomes even more obvious as the story unfolds.
“A Girl Missing” has a narrative structure that shows segments of the “before” and “after” of Ichiko’s life in non-chronological order. Therefore, viewers might wonder why Ichiko’s demeanor, physical appearance, lifestyle and home are very different in various parts of the movie. Why her life undergoes a major transformation is explained in bits and pieces, like a puzzle that eventually tells the whole story when the entire puzzle is put together.
All of the movie’s cast members do a good job in their roles, but Tsutsui is particularly impressive since she’s able to convincingly portray Ichiko becoming a very different person by the end of the movie than she was in the beginning. It’s this character arc that is the heart of the story. And although Saki’s disappearance was a catalyst for some of the events, certain characters’ underlying motivations made it inevitable that Ichiko’s life would go through a major upheaval.
Not everyone likes watching a movie that’s told in a non-linear way. But if viewers are open to this type of movie narrative, “A Girl Missing” tells a richly layered story about self-identity, how people present themselves to society, and how those perceptions can affect how society treats them in return.
Film Movement released “A Girl Missing” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 31, 2020. The movie was released in Japan in 2019.