Mariko Tsutsui already had many stage, TV and film credits when she appeared in Koji Fukada’s 2016 drama “Harmonium.” But her performance as a woman whose life is destroyed by Tadanobu Asano’s seductive ex-con was a revelation. She made the leap from the naive and sexually starved wife of the film’s first half to the hardened and guilt-ridden survivor of the second while maintaining her laser focus on the character’s inner core.

The role won her a shelf of local awards and made her an in-demand film actor, albeit still mostly in supporting parts. Now she has reunited with Fukada in “A Girl Missing,” which again gives full play to her formidable talents, but this time as the star.

The Japanese title, “Yokogao” (literally, “side profile”) says more about her character, who shows her “good” side to the world, while seething with not-so-good feelings. Similar to the heroine of “Harmonium,” she is crushed by events beyond her control — namely, a media feeding frenzy of the sort often seen in recent local films. One notable example is Takaomi Ogata’s “The Hungry Lion” (2017), a stark examination of a teenager’s online slut-shaming and suicide.

A Girl Missing (Yokogao)
Run Time 111 mins.
Opens July 26

Fukada, who wrote the script, steers clear of both internet trends and hankie-wringing melodrama. His concerns are the fragility of human bonds, the divided nature of the human heart and the eternal desire for revenge. His vessel for these meditations, a woman who has taken on a new identity (symbolized by a new hair color) as the story begins, is an unstable mix of loving caregiver and disturbed stalker, wronged victim and devious schemer. A hard-to-love enigma, she is also hard to dismiss — or forget.

We are introduced to her as Risa (Tsutsui), who not only follows her handsome young hair stylist (Sosuke Ikematsu) to his new shop but rents an apartment overlooking his, where she can monitor his every move, including sessions with his lover.

Flashback several years to when Risa was Ichiko, the aforementioned caregiver, beloved by a bedridden elderly woman and her family, including perky teen Saki (Miyu Ogawa) and her serious-minded older sister Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa). Ichiko is engaged to a doctor (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) who is an attentive single father to a chubby, chatty boy.

Then Saki goes missing, but surfaces a week later, safe and apparently sound. Soon after, someone close to Ichiko is arrested as her kidnapper — and the media decides that Ichiko must be involved as well.

The film doesn’t delve into the crime and her alleged responsibility for it. Instead it focuses on the fall out for Ichiko, who holds back from true intimacy and finds herself alone against the media horde.

In telling this story, Fukada takes the viewpoint of the distanced observer rather than the moralist or defender. That is, he allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

He also gives his actors space to create wordless moments that speak eloquently. Tsutsui most of all, but also the excellent Ichikawa. As Motoko she gets closer than anyone to Ichiko and penetrates her ill-fitting masks with a steady, unflinching gaze.

But Motoko suffers as well. As she looks straight into the camera (and into Ichiko’s heart), we find a woman still searching, still hoping — and still for real. What you see, face forward, is what you get.

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