It’s safe to say that most people familiar with Shohei Imamura have become so primarily through his discomfiting feature films such as The Pornographers and The Eel. Beginning his career as a director in the late 1950s, Imamura showed a marked appreciation for those living on the fringe of post-war Japanese society, crafting a signature style while developing the intricate and unpredictable characters that would become his calling card in later years. In 1967, Imamura shifted his method of storytelling from pure fiction to non-fiction, releasing a documentary unlike any that had been shot before.
Ostensibly an examination of the large numbers of people who had been reported missing in Japan during the 1960s, A Man Vanishes also serves as an early investigation into the role a documentary filmmaker has on shaping the outcome of her finished work. Imamura’s first documentary maintains the director’s ultimate and abiding focus on characters whose behavior and motives defy popular imaginings of the self-preservation instinct. The subject, chosen seemingly at random, that Imamura decides to investigate is one Tadashi Oshima, reported missing to the authorities months after embezzling funds from his employers.
At first, the film presents itself to us as a procedural, with Imamura visiting several government agencies to find out as much about Oshima as officially possible. These visits produce leads to Oshima’s family, his fiancée, and his fiancée’s family. The first inkling that this film won’t be a dry examination of the things people go through to find missing loved ones appears when Oshima’s family partakes in a traditional Shinto séance. Imamura’s camera work here is impeccable, the director setting up all sorts of weird angles and employing a starkly contrasted chiaroscuro to enhance the drama of Oshima’s impossibly old relatives as they attempt to speak with their ancestors, asking them to intercede for their lost son. The outcome of the séance is confirmation that Oshima is alive, but that’s about it.
Imamura spends most of his time abusing Oshima’s jilted fiancée, Yoshie. Badgering her with questions, and casting aspersions on her character, Imamaura creates, rather than captures, tension. The most obvious symbol of his disdain for this poor young woman is how the film introduces her: Yoshie, The Rat. Yoshie, whose faith in her missing lover never seems to waver, is a complex and utterly sad character, with no one aside from a gruff director (who also paid her a salary to appear in the film) to confide in. Imamura, far from hiding the artificiality of the emotional responses he engendered in his subject, at one point strikes a set in which Yoshie and her sister Sayo have been bitterly arguing over Oshima’s sexual fidelity. It’s breathtaking in its raw emotionality, but it also leaves the viewer (perhaps intentionally) feeling like a pretty terrible person for finding it so.
At the end of the film we’re left wondering if Imamura’s desire to locate Oshima was ever genuine, and, more importantly, if the genuineness of that desire is ultimately important. The last several minutes of A Man Vanishes are some of the most fascinating ever filmed, and functions as a sort of verité answer to the overblown fourth wall shattering of Jodorowsky in The Holy Mountain. Imamura’s premiere documentary film is disturbing, and it’s impossible to justify the amount of bullying he and his crew employed to coax reactions out of Yoshie. However, the film is an important entry in a long history of a style of documentary/fiction filmmaking that sadly looks like it’s finding its logical culmination in Honey Boo Boo.