The True Crimes that Inspired the Disturbing Japanese Thriller ‘Missing’ (2021)

The Japanese crime thriller Missing (aka Sagasu, 2021) was inspired, in part, by a high-profile murder case from 2017. Here is the true story that inspired the grisly fictional killer.

Missing (2021) is a tense Japanese thriller made even more frightening when you learn it’s inspired by a true story.

What would you do if your father left to track down a serial killer, but he didn’t return home? That’s the central premise of Missing, one of 2022’s most gripping crime thrillers. Missing is a twist-filled mystery from Japan about a serial killer who performs disturbing acts. The film becomes even more disturbing when you learn that the killer in the movie was inspired by true events.

What is ‘Missing’ About?

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
Missing begins as a movie about a young woman searching for her missing father.

As Missing begins, we get to know the relationship between a single father, Satoshi Harada, and his high-school-aged daughter Kaede. Kaede has a serious demeanor and is quite mature for her age. This is likely due to the fact that her father is initially portrayed as being impulsive and childlike. Kaede’s mother is not in the picture, though the reasons for her absence are revealed later in the movie. What is made clear early in Missing is that something tragic has happened, and Satoshi and Kaede are in a bad place emotionally.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021).
With her mother no longer around, Kaede has taken it upon herself to take care of her father when he gets into trouble.

Satoshi works in construction, but he and Kaede are struggling monetarily. One night, Satoshi reveals to his daughter that he spotted a wanted serial killer whose capture could earn them a hefty reward. The next day, Satoshi is gone. The authority figures in Kaede’s life believe Satoshi has abandoned her, which leads Kaede to search for her father herself. Kaede’s investigation leads her ever closer to a dangerous killer, and her life is forever changed by her discoveries.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
Kaede grows increasingly frustrated with adults who are of little help in her search.

The driving force in Missing is Kaede’s search for her father. Along the way, the film’s point of view switches to other characters, filling in pieces of the mystery and showing some of the same events from multiple perspectives. It’s an effective technique that builds the tension and drama for certain characters while getting quite dark and disturbing when switching to the perspective of the killer. So in effect, Missing becomes a tense journey that shifts between being emotional, scary, exhilarating, and even humorous.

What Was the Inspiration for ‘Missing’?

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
Satoshi and Kaede have a strained yet compassionate relationship.

Director and cowriter Shinzo Katayama has said in interviews that he researched true crimes in Japan when coming up with ideas for Missing. However, he is hesitant about revealing any specific killers or crimes he incorporated into the script. The one real-life story that Katayama talks about that directly inspired the movie involves the director’s own father.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
The reasons for Satoshi’s disappearance become the main focus of the seconds half of the movie.

When Shinzo Katayama was in high school, his father told Shinzo that he recognized a man wanted for murder while riding a train. Shinzo didn’t believe him, but years later when the killer was caught, Shinzo realized that his father was telling the truth. That incident stuck with Shinzo, and he ended up using his father’s chance encounter as the reason Satoshi gives to Kaede before he goes missing. Shinzo Katayama hasn’t revealed the name of the killer his father saw, so any guesses about their identity would be pure speculation. However, the killer in Missing does bear a strong resemblance to a much more recent real-life killer from Japan.

The Real Serial Killer ‘Missing’ is Based On

Please be aware that this section contains spoilers for Missing, and it contains descriptions of real-life assaults and murders.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
Terumi Yamauchi’s habit of biting his nails is one of the indicators that helps Kaede realize who he is.

The character Terumi Yamauchi is the fictional killer in Missing. Terumi preys on people who are contemplating suicide, offering “assistance” to those who aren’t able to go through with the act on their own. Terumi claims to be helping people, but he is clearly just taking advantage of people who are in a vulnerable state of mind.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
Though there isn’t a lot of blood and gore in Missing, there are a few gruesome moments placed throughout the film that make strong impacts.

Terumi chooses his victims based on their social media posts. If he sees someone posting about suicide, he will pretend to sympathize with them and offer, for a fee, to help them end their life. Terumi then meets with the victim, killing them whether they want to go through with it or not. He then dismembers the bodies, storing the body parts in coolers until he can figure out how to dispose of them.

Pictured on the left is real-life serial killer Takahiro Shiraishi, and pictured on the right is fictional killer Terumi Yamauchi from Missing.

Though Terumi Yamauchi is apparently an amalgamation of several killers, one real-life murderer stands out as a clear inspiration. In October of 2017, the dismembered remains of nine people were discovered in the tiny apartment of a man named Takahiro Shiraishi. Similar to how Terumi stores bodies in Missing, the severed heads and various body parts in Takahiro’s apartment were found stashed in coolers. That is far from the only similarity between fact and fiction though.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
This image from Missing shows a severed head stored in a cooler filled with litter. The real killer also used cat litter to try to mask the smell of the body parts in his apartment.

The real crimes occurred in Zama, a Japanese city about an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo. Takahiro Shiraishi moved to Zama in August of 2017, and the series of murders, known as the “Zama 9 Murder Case,” spanned from late August until Takahiro’s arrest on October 31, 2017. Takahiro set up a Twitter account and sought women who expressed thoughts of suicide on social media. He sympathized with them, often telling them that he would help them die or that he would kill himself along with them. After luring the women into a meeting, Takahiro sexually assaulted them before killing them.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
Takahiro Shiraishi was often referred to as the “Twitter Killer” in English news media. In Missing, Terumi (pictured here) is referred to as “No Name.”

In total, eight women and one man were murdered. The sole male victim was the boyfriend of one of the other victims who Takahiro thought would expose his crimes. Takahiro was caught when the brother of one of his victims investigated his sister’s disappearance and found her interactions with Takahiro’s Twitter account. The police were alerted, and that’s when they discovered the gruesome scene at Takahiro’s apartment.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
The app Terumi uses in Missing is called “Pigeon,” an obvious nod to Twitter.

While on trial, Takahiro’s defense team tried to make the case that their client should receive a lighter sentence because his victims asked for his help in dying, but Takahiro refuted his own attorney’s claims. Takahiro said none of his victims consented to their death. Takahiro was given the death penalty for his crimes in December of 2020, and as of this writing he is in prison awaiting the completion of his sentence.

Missing (Sagasu, 2021)
Terumi’s final potential victim, Starling, is the only person who truly wanted to die at Terumi’s hands, though even she had second thoughts.

As described above, the killer in Missing is hauntingly similar to Takahiro Shiraishi. From finding his victims through a social media app, to feigning sympathy towards suicidal people, to storing body parts in coolers, the connections are unmistakable. What might be the most chilling similarity is revealed late in the movie when the film’s killer remarks to his final potential victim that none of his previous victims actually wanted to go through with their suicide. Knowing that this remark is an echo of reality is a terrifying thought.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who directed Missing?

Shinzo Katayama directed Missing. He also cowrote the script with Kazuhisa Kotera and Ryo Takada. Missing is Katayama’s second feature film as a director after 2018’s Siblings of the Cape. Katayama previously worked as an assistant director on multiple films and TV shows, including working with Bong Joon-ho as the third assistant director on the 2009 movie Mother.

Who is in the cast of Missing?

Aoi Ito stars as Kaede Harada, a high-school girl who searches for her missing father. Ito’s first acting credit was in Sadako 2 3D (2013), one of the multiple sequels in the Ring (Ringu) franchise.

Jiro Sato costars as Satoshi Harada, Kaede’s father who goes missing after talking about searching for a serial killer. Sato is an actor with well over 150 credits in film, television, and anime.

Hiroya Shimizu costars as Terumi Yamauchi, the serial killer at the center of the action in Missing. Shimizu recently appeared in the film Tokyo Revengers (2021).

Misato Morita appears as Starling, a woman who contacts Terumi about having him help her commit suicide. Morita recently starred as Megumi in the Netflix series The Naked Director (2019).

What does the title of Missing refer to?

In English, Missing most obviously refers to the fact that Kaede’s father is missing. On a deeper level, “missing” could also refer to what is missing in the relationship between Satoshi and Kaede that leads to the father keeping secrets from his daughter. This is evidenced in the movie especially well in the final sequence.

In Japanese, the title is Sagasu. “Sagasu” means “to look for,” which holds a similar yet slightly different meaning in the movie. Everyone in the film is searching for something. Physically, Kaede is searching for her father, and Satoshi goes off searching for the killer. Additionally, everyone is searching for something intangible that gives their life meaning.

Where can I watch Missing?

Missing was released in a limited number of theaters in the United States on November 4, 2022. Missing was then released on various video-on-demand sites including Amazon on November 18, 2022. Dark Star Pictures will release Missing on Blu-ray in North America on December 6, 2022.

Further Reading

Meet The Author

Chris Catt

Chris has a degree in film studies at Temple University’s campus in Tokyo, Japan. He is a renowned expert on horror cinema.