In October, 2014, a tourist visiting Yellowknife disappeared. Atsumi Yoshikubo seemed like a typical Japanese vacationer, visiting for the majestic creaking pines and the ethereal beauty of the northern lights. Five days after arriving, she walked out of town and into the woods, never to be seen again. Award-winning producer, writer and director Geoff Morrison’s The Missing Tourist delves into the mystery of Yoshikubo’s vanishing. With no signs of criminality, or much hard evidence at all, could Atsumi have traveled all that way just to slip silently out of the world?
A doctor specializing in clinical psychiatry, Yoshikubo was unusual for a Japanese tourist, traveling alone. The diminutive woman wandered around Yellowknife dressed in a pink parka. She visited the gift shop, the tourist centre and local restaurants. She asked how and where to see the aurora borealis, a major draw for Japanese travellers. Less than a week after arriving, locals saw her wandering out of town, and then that was it. She was gone. Within days the RCMP was searching for Yoshikubo, police and denizens scouring the countryside in a search and rescue operation.
Morrison follows the true crime conventions of a story like this, as it blows up, the Japanese media taking an interest. Local characters speculate could Yoshikubo have been picked up and murdered like a Native girl, or had she gotten lost naively wandering in the forest? The possibility of suicide is raised, but her family in Japan is skeptical. With the discovery of an email Yoshikubo sent to a friend, the RCMP calls off the search. Their explanation is cryptic, leaving many people dissatisfied.
The odd thing that Morrison teases at with The Missing Tourist is how the enigma at the centre of the story isn’t much of an enigma at all, if you know anything about Japanese culture. They possess a deep cultural fascination with suicide—samurai warriors committing seppuku, lovers’ death pacts, kamikaze pilots in WWII, even feudal tropes of the elderly wandering away to die when they’re no longer productive—unlike the West, Japanese society is pretty okay with killing yourself. There’s even dignity in the act.
So while the Yellowknife locals fret, wondering in disbelief how anyone could choose to just walk into the woods and end it all, I needed about thirty seconds to decide that was exactly what happened. (And yes, exposure and dehydration would be a pretty horrible way to go.)
The Missing Tourist succeeds though, in mining the tensions between western and eastern cultural norms, and touching on the dynamics of family denial in a highly unusual investigation. “The film is about the journey to find closure, something that’s very difficult when there’s an absence of information,” Morrison says. In forty-five minutes, The Missing Tourist finds plenty to make us uncomfortable.
Canadians can watch the entire episode on the CBC website, here.