Shinzo Katayama on Finding How a Crime Takes Shape in “Missing”

Harada (Jiro Sato) is a broken man when he is first introduced in “Missing,” picked up by the local authorities when he attempts to steal some food from a convenience store that he can’t afford to pay for, leading his teenage daughter Kaede (Aoi Ito) to come bail him out. They may return home together, but only one remains in the morning when Harada is nowhere to be found, unable to stay in the house where he cared for his wife stricken with ALS and now he feels his daughter would be burdened with taking care of him and leaving no trace of where he might be headed next. Although Kaede struggles for clarity as she searches for her father in Shinzo Katayama’s beguiling mystery, the filmmaker has a clear grasp of the uncertainty of being a young adult, unsure of whether to take the reins when the person who raised her can no longer be counted on, taking inspiration in a variety of directions when his own father told him something he couldn’t believe could be true.

“When I was a high school student, my father told me he saw a fugitive, a serial killer on the train,” recalled Katayama via a translator. “I didn’t believe him, and I thought he was lying, but after a few years, it was in the news that this serial killer was caught and I realized it was the same serial killer that my father was talking about. I realized these things really actually happen, and that was the inspiration for writing this script.”

That wasn’t the only awakening that Katayama had in his high school days, saying “ I used to watch ‘Pulp Fiction’ by Tarantino multiple times and I think I got the inspiration from that,” when putting together the unfurling narrative for “Missing,” which moves backward in time as Kaede comes across a construction worker named Tenumi (Hiroya Shimizu), who seems as if he could know something about Harada’s whereabouts, but while it’s an open question as to how much he does, he clearly shares something in common with her father, a lost soul whose loneliness seems as if it could overwhelm him at any moment. When imagining where such a deep sense of depression could lead, Katayama, who earned his stripes as a second unit director on such films as Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother” before heading to the hot seat himself, believed that looking at a loss of innocence for these two men through the eyes of a young woman was the most intriguing way into the story.

“I really wanted the main character to be this 14-year-old girl who was very pure and who starts being involved in these very horrific incidents,” says Katayama, who makes sure to put Kaede through the ringer once she learns more about the connection between the reticent stranger and her father, taking her out of the city to the coastline where much is buried beneath the sand.

When the audience comes to learn these things at the same rate she does, it’s only fitting that Katayama engages in long, unbroken takes that fully immerse one in her experience. To pull them off wasn’t easy, especially when the director so often follows Kaede into busy public places, trailing her through train stations and the streets she traverses on bike where Ito, the actress, might have to navigate not only the road in front of her but real life that would find its way into the frame.

“We filmed it in Osaka and there’s a scene in the crosswalk where the main character is and there you see a bike coming and when the light changes, it comes into frame, but it was actually a miraculous great timing,” Katayama marvels. “He was not an extra. It was an actual person on a bike that did that, so that was one of the things that I think went well miraculously.”

Due to a limited production schedule, there was little time to rehearse such scenes – as Katayama explained, “Mostly it was done on set, so we’d do a rehearsal on set and then we’d do the actual take, but through that, we would get to know the character” – but if there was any lack of time to prepare, it doesn’t show up in the final product, which has been well-received around the world since premiering in Busan last year and becoming a favorite at genre fests such as Fantasia Fest in Montreal and Fantastic Fest in Austin. Although the film looks at grief and the unexpected implications and connections it creates, Katayama has taken away a lot of joy from seeing how “Missing” has resonated with audiences around the world.

“I’m extremely happy, especially that it’s going to be released in North America,” says Katayama. “I think it’s good for my career as well, so I’m very excited.”

“Missing” opens on November 4th in New York at the Film Noir Theater, Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale and in Columbus, Ohio at the Gateway Cinema. It will be on VOD on November 18th and Blu-ray on December 6.

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