“None of us are needed” claims the nihilistic serial killer at the centre of Shinzo Katayama’s dark mystery drama, Missing (さがす, Sagasu). That he’s wrong is an obvious point, but also one reinforced by the teenage heroine’s determination to find her father not just literally and physically, but spiritually and emotionally as she struggles to reorient herself and find direction in her life in the midst of grief and despair. Drawing inspiration from the so-called “Twitter Killer” case of 2017 Katayama asks some difficult questions about the ethics of life and death and how seemingly ordinary people can be pulled towards the dark side by a mixture of greed and misplaced compassion.
As the film opens, young Kaede (Aoi Ito) is running through the backstreets of Osaka looking for her dad (Harada). What occurs is something of a role reversal as she arrives, breathless, at a convenience store and is forced to apologise because her father has been caught shoplifting having been short the paltry sum of 20 yen which she then has to pay to smooth things over so he won’t actually be arrested. It’s at this point that Satoshi tells her about his big get rich quick scheme which involves claiming the reward for catching a fugitive serial killer, Terumi Yamauchi (Hiroya Shimizu), known as “No Name”, whom he believes to have seen in the local area. Kaede does not take her father seriously, but then Satoshi suddenly disappears. She can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth and that something untoward has happened to him.
What she quickly discovers, however, is that no one except herself is very interested in her father’s disappearance. Her teacher tries to help by taking her to the police, but it’s clear that they do not consider Satoshi to be a person worth looking for suggesting that whatever’s happened to him is most likely his own fault for being an imperfect person, implying that he drinks and has debts so most likely has gone missing on purpose. The teacher later comes to the same conclusion, getting a nun from a local orphanage to come and fetch Kaede believing her father has no intention of returning. Probably meaning well, the nun also tells her that her father has abandoned her and there’s no point waiting for him. But even if everyone else thinks that Satoshi is an “unnecessary” person, he is important to her and so she will not stop until she finds him even if that puts her in similar danger hot on the heels of a serial murderer.
Like the Twitter Killer, Yamauchi disingenuously claims to be helping people, offering “salvation” to those who want to die but cannot bring themselves to end their own lives. By his logic, there are some who are only clinging on to life out of guilt for those who will be left behind while simultaneously blaming themselves that they are “unneeded” and nothing more than a burden to the few who do care about them. His claims are however nothing more than sociopathic justification designed to convince others that what he’s doing is in some way compassionate rather than a sickening attempt to satisfy his own dark desires. As he finally concedes with a repeat customer, in the end none of the people he killed wanted to die but were looking for something else which obviously was not what he wanted to give them.
Perhaps Satoshi was looking for something too though whether he found it or not only he could say. Katayama hints at the grimness of everyday life in Satoshi’s unsatisfying existence of casual labour, guilt, and loss. When Kaede tries to check whether or not he’s been going to work, no one recognises his picture and it turns out that someone else has been working under his name. A migrant worker urges her to be careful, that the man calling himself Satoshi Harada has bad vibes of the kind he claims you often find “in places like this”. All Satoshi wanted to was to reopen the ping pong parlour he was forced to close in order to care for his wife during a longterm illness which left him with financial debts along with the emotional. It is quite literally a back and fore between father and daughter, a ping pong ball flying across a table until finally hitting its mark as Kaede reveals that she has found the answers she was looking for even if not quite the ones she wanted. Lightened by moments of dark humour, Katayama’s strange procedural grimly suggests that none of us is really so far away from acts of desperate brutality but equally that none of us is ever unneeded no matter how lonely it might feel.
Missing screens in Chicago on Oct. 30 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. It will also be released in the US on Nov. 18 courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.
US release trailer (English subtitles)