There is so much packed into the new Japanese drama “A Girl Missing” – jealousy, spite, brokenness, and revenge. It looks at elderly care and rabid news media. Guilt by association and the dangers of keeping quiet only scratch the film’s thematic surface. You would think a movie with this many narrative tendrils would have its hands full covering so much ground. Instead “A Girl Rising” is every bit of a slow burn – a movie almost too casual to add punch to any of its interests.
“A Girl Rising” comes from writer-director Kōji Fukada and is the follow up to his highly acclaimed 2016 film “Harmonium”. Fukada has some interesting ideas most notably starting his one single storyline in two different places and then walking them to their inevitable convergence. It’s crafty storytelling no doubt. Unfortunately the parallel stories clash more than they connect adding a level of confusion to much of the film. But when Fukada does bring it all together, it paints a big picture that I couldn’t help but admire.
Mariko Tsutsui gives a terrific two-pronged lead performance. We first meet her as Risa, a troubled and downcast woman who develops what seems like an obsessive attraction to a hairstylist named Yoneda (played by Sosuke Ikematsu). Next we see Tsutsui playing Ichiko, a caring and compassionate home health nurse who loves her job and is engaged to be married. Two very different lives at two dramatically different junctures.
Ichiko’s story gets the bulk of the attention and it’s by far the most cohesive of the two. She works as a caregiver for an elderly ex-painter and through her caring service she has become close with the matriarch’s family. Especially the two granddaughters, the moody Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and her outgoing younger sister Saki (Miyu Ogawa) who Ichiko helps with their studies.
After one of their study sessions Saki disappears and her story quickly makes citywide headlines. Police believe it’s an abduction and Ichiko’s nephew Tatsuo (Ren Sudo) the prime subject. Motoko convinces a reluctant Ichiko not to share her family connection to Tatsuo for fear that she’ll be fired. But Motoko’s motivations are murky and keeping that kind of a secret adds suspicion whether deserved or not.
Interestingly the abduction of Saki (and the film’s title itself) plays a relatively small part in the story. Instead the film’s main focus is on how quickly the walls of Ichiko’s happy life crumble. Meanwhile Risa’s pursuit of Yoneda turns into a patchwork romance that essentially springs out of nowhere. Most of the character detail and patience put into Ichiko’s angle is missing from Risa’s. Thankfully Fukada does eventually connect the dots in a satisfying way that makes you rethink Risa’s story. But getting that point is a little rocky.
So “A Girl Missing” ends up being both fascinating and frustrating. One angle puts ample attention into building its character and exploring the unfolding drama surrounding her. The other feels like an appendage, tagging along and waiting for the movie to finally grant it relevance. Once together, Fukada’s vision is impressive, even audacious. And I really admire Mariko Tsutsui’s performance and the depth she brings to her Ichiko character. She infuses that storyline with a wealth of humanity and Fukada gives her plenty of room to work. If only the other story angle worked as well.
VERDICT – 3 STARS