Missing (Sagasu) is a devastating Japanese thriller that gut-punches audiences with intense and raw emotion as the mystery unfolds. It's the second feature from co-writer and director Shinzô Katayama, who penned the screenplay with Ryô Takada and Kazuhisa Kotera. Captivating and surprising with hints of neo-noir — it’s a slow burn that subverts audience expectations at every turn.
The layered and morally ambiguous story is told from three distinct viewpoints. Kaede Harada (Aoi Itô) is a teenage girl caring for her grieving father, Santoshi (Jirô Satô), following her mother’s death. Depressed, in debt, and frequently inebriated, Santoshi vows to find the infamous serial killer No-Name (Hiroya Shimizu), to claim the reward money. When he goes missing, Kaede fears he has become the serial killer’s next victim and sets out to find him.
Kaede has faced the harsh and painful realities of adulthood, forcing her to grow up. When everything collapses around her, she doesn’t shatter or break. She displays a strength and wisdom beyond her years, shoving down what youthful innocence remains to survive a world created by adults. Ultimately, her decisions in the film’s finale depict a young woman unwilling to compromise on what is right, despite the heartbreaking reality of her circumstances.
The plot is character-driven, and as the mystery unfolds, we discover that the story begins in the middle with Santoshi’s disappearance, and everything isn’t what it seems. We share in the journeys of Kaede, No-Name, and Santoshi from their perspectives as their paths converge and diverge throughout the film, which becomes decidedly darker and more disturbing as each character’s morals and motivations are revealed.
Kaede is the central thread that holds the story together. Ito beautifully portrays her loss of innocence as she grieves her mother’s death, deals with the perils of being a teen, and the acute fear and desperation she feels over the loss of her father. Her journey also highlights some interesting commentary surrounding social stratification in Japanese society and socioeconomics. There are several entertaining exchanges between Kaede and a teacher, a nun, and a police detective as she searches for her father.
Satô and Shimizu give similarly compelling performances, but there is a particular scene with Shimizu’s No-Name in which he murders a man who has offered him shelter. When the older man reveals a room in his home lined wall-to-wall with pornography, inviting No-Name to partake, he is triggered by a named woman on screen, wearing a pair of pristine white socks. The significance of the moment is revealed as his path crosses with Santoshi, a revelation that is all the more stomach-churning.
It’s easy to resonate with Kaede and Santoshi’s pain, but it is Kaede's bravery in the face of immense loss that will stay with audiences. The film’s final scene is brilliantly nuanced as Ito and Satô as father and daughter, play a game of ping-pong with intense and pained emotions bubbling under the surface.
Missing is an incredibly strong first feature for Katayama, exploring the ugly underbelly of society and the heartbreaking reality that everything we know and love could disappear without warning. It’s bleak, harrowing, and tragic, reminding us that while we are not powerless, we cannot control the world around us, only the choices we make and how we react when tested.