Converging towards Kobo Abe’s experimental fiction in its fragmented examination of the strange phenomenon of johatsu – the unexplained (and presumably self-initiated) disappearances of otherwise seemingly responsible and professional salarymen in metropolitan Tokyo – as a broader social symptom of the anonymization and erasure of identity inherent in urbanization and rigid cultural conformity (most notably, in the novels Man Without a Map and The Face of Another that were later adapted to film by Hiroshi Teshigahara), and infused with Shohei Imamura’s familiar penchant for human imperfection, awkwardness, and irrationality that infuses his films with a certain idiosyncratic messiness, A Man Vanishes is an ingeniously constructed and subversively intellectual, yet captivating and elegant rumination on the malleability, inexactness, and ephemeral nature of reality. Opening to the seemingly conventional aesthetic of a documentary film in its clinical images of institutional spaces and dry, impassive presentation of compiled data – in this case, a visit to police headquarters as an official provides the physical description and vital statistics of a missing plastics salesman named Tadashi Oshima who disappeared two years earlier during a routinely scheduled, payment collection business trip – the film explodes the creative myth of cinéma vérité as a direct, unadulterated means of capturing Truth in its essential (and integral) ambiguity and representational hybridity.
Ostensibly framed as an investigative film that seeks to put a human face to a curious phenomenon and solve the mystery of an everyman’s disappearance, the film unfolds as a procedural, documenting the field research and interviews conducted by recurring Imamura actor turned investigative reporter, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi as he follows a trail of potential, often contradictory, and invariably dead-end information related to Oshima’s case, accompanied by Oshima’s enigmatic fiancée, Yoshie Hayakawa who, in turn, continues to be haunted by her lover’s disappearance and shadows Shigeru in his search for truth (initially, in an attempt to bring about her own personal closure, then subsequently, in her own increasing attraction towards the genial actor). In an early episode, Oshima’s supervisor suggests a possible motive for the disappearance by disclosing a suppressed company scandal involving Oshima’s embezzlement of payment checks that is subsequently tempered by his financial restitution, as well as an accountant’s realization that the still missing checks that had been collected on the day of his disappearance have remained undeposited. In another potential lead, the pair uncovers a salacious rumor over Oshima’s failed love affair with a waitress named Kimiko that may have resulted in a pregnancy, a rumor that is subsequently refuted by Kimiko herself. Still another clue surfaces when a witness suggests that Oshima had discovered that Yoshie’s sister, Sayo was leading a disreputable life as a former (and not too successful) geisha and kept mistress of a married man, creating an embarrassing situation that, as the son of a samurai family, had complicated his marriage plans – a theory that is seemingly reinforced by a shaman’s divination of the sister’s involvement in his disappearance (an assertion that, not surprisingly, contradicts her earlier reading that Oshima’s troubles stem from an unresolved situation from within his own ancestral family).
Imamura presciently anticipates the blurring of bounds between truth and fiction of Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema (most notably, in Close-up and Through the Olive Trees) and the recursive irresolvability of Nagisa Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film through the film’s amorphous, ever-shifting logical (and increasingly visible) construction – at times, part docufiction in the director’s (played by Imamura himself) casting of professional actor, Shigeru as the interviewer for the documentary, and at other times, part metafilm in the participation of the missing man’s real-life fiancée, Yoshie as both a character witness providing insight into Oshima’s personal life in the days before his disappearance, and as an actress facilitating the staging and reenacting of events surrounding the film crew’s search for answers in the aftermath of his disappearance. Moreover, in illustrating the role of the filmmaker in selecting the distilled, encapsulable images – what is filmed, edited, and reinforced – that innately represent the author’s personal ideas of what is Truth, Imamura reinforces the theme of all filmed reality as intrinsically subjective and, therefore, consequently staged: transformed into spectacle by the subject’s change in behavior resulting from an awareness of being filmed (a correlation that also surfaces in Harun Farocki’s essay film on the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving the Factory). It is this interpenetration between reality and the subjectivity of perception, individual will and performance of role, that defines the bold and irreverent spirit of Imamura’s inventive and thoughtful exposition on the essential paradox of cinema: a medium that integrally conveys both the representation of real life and its projected imitation.
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