There is one scene in Katayama Shinzo’s debut, Missing, that offers a striking quote: “There are some people in this world that want to die. They want to, but they can’t express it.” Missing, which was scheduled to release domestically in Japanese theaters in 2022, is the feature film debut of Katayama Shinzo. As a director, he first made his name at the 2018 Skip City International D-Cinema Festival when he won Best Picture for his film Siblings of the Cape; this was his first-ever endeavor as a director. Siblings of the Cape made its rounds throughout the international film festival circuits, but Missing aims to go higher than its predecessor as a commercial release.
But fans of the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho may recognize the name Katayama Shinzo from somewhere else: he was the assistant director for Bong’s 2009 movie Mother. He also was an assistant director for the anthology movie Tokyo! with Bong in 2008. With a budget and backing to go even more global with this release, this is only the beginning of Katayama’s career. However, Missing hopes to establish him as a potential protégé of Bong in this new arena of international cinema. Fortissimo Films bought the rights to distribute the film outside of Asia after it was screened at the Busan International Film Festival—the movie also was a co-production with South Korea.
Its cast consists of Jiro Sato, Aoi Ito, Hiroya Shimizu, Misato Morita, Shotaro Ishii, and Izumi Matsuoki, among others. The only actor non-Japanese audiences may be familiar with is Jiro Sato, but each of these actors has a wide range on their resumes in Japanese entertainment. It comes as no surprise they do when seeing their performances in Missing. For a story about a missing father that offers several angles—a serial killer on the loose, a mother suffering from illness, an abandoned child seen as a nuisance to the system—about what its central theme might be. There is a lot to unpack in this movie, and it is quite an emotional journey.
A Series of Decisions Leads to a Ripple Effect
At night, on the streets of Osaka, a teenage girl (Aoi Ito) in a school uniform runs across an intersection while panting heavily. She weaves through the shops and markets still open at this time of night, dodging through passing strangers, families, and couples out enjoying the evening. Her name is Kaede, and she has come to bust her father, Satoshi Harada (Jiro Sato), out of a situation he has gotten himself into. He attempted to shoplift from a grocery store when he realized he did not have enough money to pay for his items. “My dad isn’t all there,” she bows while apologizing, placing the remaining money on the table. Thus the dynamic is set where Satoshi’s daughter, decades younger than him, has to act like the adult in their relationship.
There is also the fact the family does not have money or resources—they are the people who fall in-between the cracks of society. Satoshi did not even have a few coins to cover his grocery bill and was the owner of a failed business, so when he disappears one day, headstrong Kaede is frantically trying to figure out where her father went now. Her mother died after withering away because of illness, leaving Kaede completely alone in the world. It is because of this Kaede decides to hunt down her father, tracking down his old workplace. However, things are not as they seem when she discovers a co-worker with the same name as her father. That young man has the same appearance as a suspected serial killer with a three million yen bounty on his head, leading Kaede to suspect that her father might be in danger.
As Kaede searches for her father, Missing’s story goes back farther than the present moment. It switches to the perspective of the villain months before Kaede’s plight, then wrenches the viewer back even further to understand how Satoshi and Terumi crossed paths initially. When his wife was alive, Satoshi enlisted Terumi’s methods of killing to attempt to create a more desirable situation. It is here Missing begins to twist in itself, morphing genres to generate a movie that is not only a thriller, but also heartbreaking. As Terumi tries to get Satoshi to join him, their paths converge, diverge, and then converge again in months.
The killer’s motives might not be clear through all of this, chalking up his motives to salvation for the victims, but understanding him is not needed because of the layers created through Kaede, Satoshi, and his victims themselves. The decision to switch the perspectives around, taking the focus away from Kaede, allows the film the chance to delve deeper and lay down a spiderweb to connect everything. Kaede, who is an innocent child only touched by the hand of poverty, could never know the nuances of the situation that her father led them into. Though it seems inevitable that she will discover the impact of what her father did, and the actions he made in the name of love, it is about the journey of getting there by the end of the movie.
Each Character and Actor Stands On Their Own
There is not a standout actor throughout the movie—they are all terrific in the roles they have been assigned to play. Aoi Ito as Kaede is both relentless and fearless in her pursuit of her father, drawing up enough spunk to even spit on a nun at one point. Jiro Sato’s Satoshi paints a portrait of a grieving father in search of better opportunities, even if it leads him down a dangerous path. One surprising performance is brief: the role of Kaede’s mother. Portrayed by actress Toko Narushima, Kaede’s mother is bedridden in the few scenes the viewer can see her in, slowly succumbing to the effects of ALS. Satoshi frets over her, showing a drastic contrast to the man at the beginning of the film, and is shocked when she begs him to kill her while she is asleep.
The weakest link in all of this is the villain: Terumi Yamauchi (Hiroya Shimizu). Shimizu plays up the creepy factor with this serial killer, bringing a level of physicality to the role. He is the kind of villain one would expect to be a killer from his demeanor alone, but when he speaks and interacts with others, his character slides more into the stereotypical “I’m a serial killer” kind of territory. Another character even warns Kaede about how Terumi (illegally under Satoshi’s name) “must be possessed” and tells her that she should stay far away from him. That does not stop her, and she actively continues to pursue him, threatening strangers in her home with a plastic claw grabber.
Considering Katayama worked under Bong for two different films, the comparisons between the directors are inevitable at the beginning of his filmmaking career. However, Katayama’s influence on the Korean director throughout Missing is undeniable. There is a blending of multiple genres throughout the movie, as well as the layers of social commentary that Bong has become well-known for in his film Parasite, although he has been doing that for years. Katayama also incorporates quick pivots and shifts of his tone throughout, keeping the viewers on their feet. Is he a clone of the beloved director? Absolutely not. Katayama’s movie is very distinct yet still entertaining throughout its run time. There is not a dull moment as the characters run through the streets of Osaka with a shaky handheld camera.
Is Missing worth watching? Yes. It is a movie with a lot of meat in its story and holds a specific context on Japanese society and socioeconomics that adds a deeper layer of commentary beyond one’s surface-level impression. While the beginning can be slow at times, they are many moments where the intensity cranks up and the ride becomes even wilder. Some scenes in this movie might include some of the most memorable shots in years, including the ending. There are some aspects of the plot that are a little too convenient in search for the truth behind Kaede’s father’s disappearance, but these smaller moments are worth acknowledging, but overlooking in favor of the film’s strengths and the remarkable cast. With beats of comedic timing to break up all the tension, Missing is a strong directorial debut from an upcoming director.
Missing was screened as a part of the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival.