New to the scheme from Eureka! Entertainment is one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made. Preceding films such as F For Fake and Close Up A Man Vanishes is an extraordinary attempt at undermining the very concept of documentary filmmaking. Starting out as a search for a missing man Imamura’s classic film quickly becomes something far more mysterious.
A Man Vanishes | Shôhei Imamura | 1967 | Japan | 130 mins
At first appearances A Man Vanishes is a straightforward documentary – intrigued by the swathe of disappearances across Japan, some 90,000 cases in a single year, Imamura sets out to investigate one such disappearance. Oshima Tadashi is a typical case – a salesman who disappeared during a business trip, one which he took every month. The documentary begins by interviewing those who knew Oshima: his family, co-workers, boss and friends and even ex-lovers, aided in the task by Yoshie, Tadashi’s fiancée.
The film quickly reveals several possible motives for the disappearance. Two years before Tadashi had embezzled 400,000 yen from his company and although he paid it all back after being caught he is described by co-workers as ‘racked with guilt’. Other interviewees suggest that he had changed his mind about marrying Yoshie but, given how determined both families were for it to take place, felt that there was no other way to get out of it. At this point Imamura seems convinced that Tadashi’s disappearance was deliberate and he and the rest of the crew set about retracing Tadashi’s steps. They follow the route of his business trip tracking which businesses he visited and which he failed to arrive at. At one point they think they have found the precise moment that he disappears. The filmmakers visit a shop in Fukushima that was on Tadashi’s regular sales route – the shopkeepers explain that last April, when Tadashi disappeared, after he had closed a deal at the shop asked them to order him a taxi to the train station. They felt this was unusual for several reasons: not only did Tadashi seem to be acting weirdly while in the shop but the station was in walking distance and he had plenty of time to catch the Tokyo express, which left at the same time every day. The filmmakers rush to the taxi company and after perusing through their accounts find a record of the taxi journey: it didn’t drop him at the train station but at a bar further on. On the verge of a breakthough they visit the bar and interview the owner but it’s a dead end. The owner can’t help them and there are no clues as to where Tadashi went afterwards.
It’s at this point, or maybe before, that things take a turn for the strange. With little explanation the filmmakers stop their search for Tadashi and instead focus on the relationship between Yoshie and her older sister Soya. Accusations are raised about a possible affair between Tadashi and Soya and the film gets lost in a back and forth arguments between Yoshie and Soya. But there are subtle changes in the film that signify a dramatic change in form and suggest a deliberate motive here. For most of the film Imamura has remained offscreen – the interviews are conducted by an actor hired to play the investigator so that Imamura is seperated from the actual investigation. Yet as the film goes on we start to see Imamura onscreen, directing the onscreen action or interjecting in conversations. We see more and more discussions between the filmmakers themselves, discussing their findings and planning their next move – the documentary doesn’t seem to be following the story any more, it is deciding the story. And then there’s Yoshie herself: at the beginning of the film she explains that her involvement in the film is an attempt to close the book on this chapter of her life. She is still in love with Tashida, she tells us, and can’t forget about him while the mystery remains. If she could know for certain that he chose to leave and that he doesn’t want to marry her then she believes that would be enough for her to move on. But halfway through the film we are shown the crew discussing her change in character – she no longer seems interested in finding Tashida and her continued involvement in the film seems to be solely due to her interest in the actor playing the investigator.
The artificiality of the documentary becomes slowly apparent. Not only do we see Imamura directing the film, choosing camera angles and positioning the interviewers but we also see the crew discussing what is worth shooting, what avenues are worth exploring and what to focus on. It’s a look behind the scenes while the film is still going on. When the interviews at the beginning of the film yield no definitive answers we see the crew talking around a large board detailed with the last known movements of Tashida Oshima. As one of them comments, they are no longer filmmakers; they are investigators. At the same time we see them planning future scenes, how and where to shoot them, they are not reacting to the story as it develops as one might expect from a documentary – they seem to be planning it all in advance.
We begin to question Imamura’s agenda – at first the film seems to be about finding out what happened to this vanished man, perhaps even uncovering some explanation for the swathe of disappearances across Japan, but later the film seems to be focused far more on Yoshie’s obsessive nature – a common theme for Imamura’s films. By the end however, and with the astonishing third act twist, it becomes apparent that the documentary’s focus is in fact on the nature of truth in film. By highlighting the nature of documentary as a deliberately constructed piece of work Imamura is challenging our understanding of film. We start to question not only how much of A Man Vanishes is true but how accurate documentaries as a whole are.
It is not entirely clear what Imamura’s intentions were at the start of the project – did he start with the aim of questioning the very nature of documentaries? Or did these questions present themselves to him through the process of making the film? There is even the possibility that Imamura simply ran out of story and had to change tact in order to avoid a failed project.
Regardless, what A Man Vanishes presents us with is both a gripping documentary and a brazen deconstruction of that same documentary. Its a film that will inevitably spark debate about the relationship between documentaries, films and truth. And its a film that shows the remarkable outcome of a talented director dispensing with all the rules.