A Man Vanishes (Shohei Imamura 1967) – DVD review
Shohei Imamura is fast becoming one of my favourite directors, thanks to Masters Of Cinema’s sterling efforts in releasing his hitherto hard-to-find back catalogue. A Man Vanishes was released earlier this Autumn alongside the even better The Ballad Of Narayama.
A Man Vanishes
(Shohei Imamura, Jap, 1967)
Reality or fiction? Imamura’s documentary (or is it?) blurs the line so well it deserves a new category. Let’s call it friction.
Fact. Fiction. Drama. Documentary. After years of watching mock-docs, it’s not exactly news that these terms are interchangeable. We’re such a savvy bunch nowadays that it’s impossible to watch a documentary without being aware of how artificial it is – in the shots that are used, the questions that are asked, the choice of music cues or voiceovers, we’re always being led towards certain conclusions. An entire cottage industry has sprung up to denounce the accuracy of Michael Moore’s films, while something like Catfish had everyone wondering it if was all made up to begin with.
All the more remarkable, then, that Shohei Imamura was asking these very questions in the 1960s. A Man Vanishes started out as a simple investigation into the disappearance of a salaryman, but gradually becomes an inquisition into the nature of reality, as if seized by the ghost of Rashomon. The Masters of Cinema DVD release helpfully comes with an introduction by Tony Rayns that brings clarity to some of the waters that Imamura muddies, but it’s a film that works better the less to know. All that’s important is that Imamura was alert to the possibilities of blurring conventional documentary techniques with dramatic reconstruction, and able to tease out those ambiguities in challenging, if not downright frustrating, ways.
It begins innoculously enough – Takashi Oshima went missing two years previously, and Imamura’s crew enlists the help of her fiancée, Yoshie, to interview anybody who might know what has happened to him. It’s a strong story in its own right. Imamura’s investigation prises open the underbelly of Japanese society, where a strict work ethic and a conservative attitude to women might drive a man into…if not madness, then such all-conquering ennui that it’s easier to simply vanish into the ether. In this light, it shares much with Imamura’s following film, the classic Profound Desires Of The Gods, in which another salaryman gives up modern life to join a pagan island community.
Bit of a coincidence, that, considering that this is a documentary. Or is it? The longer it goes on, the weirder things get. Why do the sound and picture go out of sync so often, as if the people are voicing their opinions separately from the actual interviews? Why is the crew filmed discussing their star investigator, who they disparagingly call The Rat behind her back? Why does Imamura keep dropping in shock cuts to a psychic prowling on a stylised set? More importantly, why does the film become sidetracked into investigating the possibility that Yoshie’s sluttish, not-quite-there sister might have had her eye on Oshima?
Imamura is playing a fascinating game here. Where most documentaries streamline themselves in order to create an illusion of truth, Imamura bungs in everything to keep the film ambiguous and the audience off-guard. On one level, it’s bad filmmaking: scrappily shot, rudimentary in sound design, and disastrously paced – too fast to dwell on any revelation for long enough, but too slow to reach any kind of point. But Imamura’s a canny, mischievous director, because it’s the sheer inelegance of the film that makes it so provocative.
For instance, Imamura deploys hidden cameras to secretly film Yoshie’s private conversations. It’s an awkward ethical breach, a crossing of the line that makes you sure Yoshie is an actress who is ‘in’ on the drama. Likewise, when she appears to fall in love with one of the crew, it’s the kind of twist you wouldn’t believe in a wholly fictional film. It must be fake, right? Because the alternative is that Yoshie is mentally damaged and Imamura is exploiting her.
The result remains fascinating, because it’s genuinely hard to gauge where the filmmaker intrudes onto reality. Towards the end, Imamura pulls off an audacious visual and tonal coup that, in a less ambitious film, would provide more than enough closure. Here, though, he lets events run for another quarter of an hour, pulling the rug out even from the initial rug-pull until there’s no choice but to sit on our proverbial arses, going nowhere fast. The realisation hits us that documentary makers have no choice but to try to manipulate reality into some semblance of order – but what happens when real life doesn’t want to be ringfenced to suit the narrative contours of a two-hour film? Sometimes, film needs to be as messy as real life.