Released into the world clinging onto the coat-tails of Hideo Nakata's The Ring, Shunichi Nagasaki's chilling ghost story Shikoku took us way off the beaten track by setting its horrors on the wooded rural province of the film's name. For his next film, the director transports us to the remote barren wilderness of Hokkaido, the most northerly of the four main islands that make up Japan, in a powerful and compelling three and a half hour DV-shot epic based on an original novel by Natsuo Kirino that ostensibly deals with the search of a young mother for her missing five year-old daughter.
Kasumi originally left her isolated Hokkaido village home of Kirai at the age of 14, severing all ties with her parents as she moved down to Tokyo to realise her dream of becoming a designer. 18 years on, she is married to her employer, with whom she has two young children, Lisa and Yuka. When the couple decide to return to the region of her birth, vacationing in a holiday house rented by her husband, they are joined by a client of his, Ishiyama, his wife Noriko and their children. Unbeknownst to their respective spouses, Kasumi and Ishiyami have been conducting an affair for the past two years, and under the cover of night the pair creep down to one of the house's unused storerooms to be together. The following morning, Kasumi's husband leaves early to take the children on a walk, but when he returns to the house, their older daughter, Yuka is not with him.
Yuka's disappearance leaves its devastating mark on both the local Hokkaido community and all those immediately involved. Four years after the fact, with the case firmly closed as far as the local police are concerned, Kasumi still clings on to the hope that her daughter is alive, the couple making an annual visit to Hokkaido to continue the search every year on October 9th, the anniversary of the disappearance. With their marriage strained to breaking point, her husband refuses to return for another year, urging Kasumi to let go of the past and accept what has happened, if not for him then for the sake of their youngest, Lisa. Noriko, meanwhile, refuses to return Kasumi's monthly calls, and having suspected the affair with her husband, has long since divorced Ishiyama, who, after being sent into bankruptcy by his latest business venture, has also disappeared without a trace.
After the couple make one last desperate appeal on national television, they are contacted by a woman who claims to have seen a scruffy homeless-looking man with a young girl wandering around the streets of Otaru in Hokkaido. With Kasumi's husband unwilling to spend any more time or money on their fruitless search, Kasumi returns to the area alone, where she is approached by a retired 31-year old police detective, Utsumi. His offer of help is initially rebuffed by Kasumi, suspicious of further police involvement. Terminally ill with stomach cancer, his own motivations of helping with the case as a "hobby" seem obscure, but having been involved in the initial investigation, he refuses to be waived aside. Unlike Kasumi, Utsumi has nothing to gain in finding out what happened to Yuka, but with only months to live, he might still have a lot to learn about himself.
Similar to Nagasaki's earlier film, A Tender Place focuses upon a modern Tokyo-ite career woman, here superbly played by Yuki Amami (perhaps best known to most cinema goers for her more cosmetic roles in Kenki Saegusa's Misty in 1997 and Takashi Ishii's Black Angel 2 / Kuro No Tenshi Vol. 2 in 1998) returning to the provincial region of her childhood only to be confronted by the ghosts of her past. The main difference is not only that Kasumi's estrangement from the bleak environment where she was brought up was her own choice, rather than Hinako's sudden uprooting from Shikoku's childhood idyll by her parents' move to the Big City, and that the ensuing barriers that greet the heroine upon the return journey are manifested as psychological rather than a supernatural ones.
Unlike Shinji Aoyama's treatment of loss in the face of a meaningless tragedy in the same year's Eureka, A Tender Place's approach is more in the vein of that of Dutch director George Sluizer's The Vanishing (Spoorloos, 1988) in which a young teacher searches for his missing girlfriend abducted whilst on a holiday in France. The film adopts the compulsive drive of the classic detective structure as leads are followed desperately to their logical conclusions, and the narrative is liberally scattered with red herrings and investigative dead ends - the mysterious disappearance of Ishiyama, the subsequent shotgun suicide of the owner of the vacation house Izumi, apparently in the face of accumulated debt, and the alleged paedophilic activities of its caretaker, Mizushima, now shacked up with Izumi's widow. The absence of any concrete evidence and the faltering subjective memory of all those who may or may not hold the key to the mystery lead the two investigators, and the viewer, to a multitude of differing conclusions.
Both Kasumi and Utsumi conduct their investigation less in the hope of finding out what exactly happened, or why it happened, but as an end in itself, a continuing search for their own individual senses of identity and purpose. Deep in her heart, Kasumi knows her quest is a hopeless one, yet seems destined to remain in a permanent state of limbo until she can come to terms with her own feelings of guilt, hopelessness and recrimination. Perhaps only then can she hope to fill the void left by Yuka and find her own tender place, whether in the almost futile hope of being reunited with her daughter, back amongst the familiar day-to-day normality of her Tokyo life or by reconciliation with her own family, whom she left without warning so many years ago.
Though A Tender Place would clearly have benefited from being shot on film to capture more fully the uncompromising savage beauty of his chosen locale, a compromise undoubtedly attributable to the financial demands of his ambitiously detailed script, Nagasaki handles the medium in mature and assured manner that seldom draws attention to itself without resorting to showy technique or the standard practice of a musical accompaniment on the soundtrack to build both mood and character. That Nagasaki manages to keep us riveted throughout the lengthy 200-minute running time is a testimony to his actors and his own skills as a filmmaker. A substantial and absorbing mood piece, rich in detail, raw in emotional charge, thought-provoking, gripping and poignant, A Tender Place is nothing short of a masterpiece.