A Man Vanishes (Masters of Cinema) Review

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to include Shôhei Imamura's A Man Vanishes (Ningen jôhatsu) among the greatest films ever made. And you'd certainly not receive any argument from this side of the fence. It's a bold, challenging work almost hidden behind more obviously laudable ones in the director's filmography. A Man Vanishes has a collection of extraordinary layers which make it a key film in any exploration of "truth" in cinema. There are elements that remind us of the cinéma vérité entries from the Maysles brothers, pictures like Salesman and Grey Gardens, and there are also somewhat more conventional techniques owing to the investigative nature of what we see. Most of all, A Man Vanishes emerges through the messy filter applied by Shôhei Imamura. It's a rather perfect distillation of some of the director's cinematic preoccupations while also acting as a rebuttal of sorts for others.

The film's surface is inviting enough but also misleading. We're sold an investigation into the sudden disappearance of a plastics salesman, 30 years old when he vanished and engaged to a woman named Yoshie. The man, Tadashi Ôshima, was also an embezzler who liked to drink to excess and had, according to those interviewed, very few redeeming qualities. Ôshima going missing fits with a larger phenomenon of several thousand Japanese leaving no trace and simply disappearing each year, known as jôhatsu. (Indeed, it was Imamura's original intent to document many different cases of these occurrences until he apparently realized the situation profiled here had plenty of intrigue and potential by itself.) This pretense is slowly abandoned as it becomes clear that Imamura develops other interests and has little concern for actually locating Ôshima. Attention instead turns to Yoshie, called "The Rat" by the filmmakers, and, on a larger scale, how complicating the concept of truth can be to cinema.

As A Man Vanishes progresses, the viewer becomes Imamura's accomplice, occasionally seeing what appear to be production meetings of some sort involving what path the film should take. It plays with us a little too, though, coloring our opinion of The Rat and her sister Sayo. With Imamura and company privy to things unseen by the audience, a certain trust is lent to them. The director also uses hidden cameras and microphones to capture more "natural" moments, placing rectangular boxes over the eyes of those who didn't grant permission in order to maintain some semblance of anonymity. The effect works as a furtherance of what is basically a facade - that A Man Vanishes is a documentary. Here, too, Imamura manipulates his audience by initially presenting the feature as a realistic account of Ôshima's disappearance and a gathering of facts as to why such a thing happened. The tune has changed considerably by the end, when a bravura collapsing of a studio set is followed by Imamura declaring that it's all fiction.

The actual "truth" is probably somewhere in between, in that A Man Vanishes contains a number of valid documentary aspects but also frames everything in a very particular, perhaps manufactured way. A good deal of the film's brilliance lies in just how muddled it leaves things. The utter lack of resolution is not only brave on Imamura's part but also indicative of the perpetual failure cinema generally has as a meaningful influence on society at large. It tends to only reveal personal truths rather than specific ones. When Imamura dismisses  his entire undertaking as fiction, the implication could be that it's pretty much impossible to ever find truth in film. Any shadow of reality is quickly enveloped by a far bigger emphasis on the filmmaker's agenda and point of view. Actual objectivity is impossible and the images and words will always be molded in certain ways just as any other narrative feature would be.

If that sounds overly pessimistic, consider that Imamura himself actually entered the documentary fray following the terrible failure of his next feature, Profound Desires of the Gods. There was a period lasting over ten years in which he didn't direct a narrative feature for the cinema. When he did finally return to fiction filmmaking, for Vengeance Is Mine in 1979, Imamura made something that strongly adhered to a documentary's structure, feel and approach. It would even be fair to cite Vengeance Is Mine as more clinical and cold in the treatment of its subject than A Man Vanishes, an ostensibly more documentary-like project. In an odd way, Imamura is possibly more objective in his depiction of the serial killer at the center of the later film than he is of either Yoshie or Ôshima.

With any suggestion of actually exploring Ôshima's disappearance removed, Imamura is left to craft a different film entirely from either what was seemingly promised or what one might expect. A Man Vanishes becomes an exploration of fact and fiction, the perception of such, and the limitations of documentary, among other things. It's really a great number of things, all of those wonderful layers, and yet still effective as a probing inquiry into its main, shared target of Ôshima and Yoshie. We might not find out definitive answers but viable theories become reasonably clear and the entire concept of jôhatsu is at least brought to light as a troubling social concern.

By giving his audience this insightful experiment, Imamura blends truth with fiction and the perception of reality with the realization that everything we’ve seen is staged, to varying extents. It’s a brilliant and thought-provoking look at film as a medium unable to show unfiltered truth. The director’s patience to produce a nearly 130 minute exercise, where the vast majority of the running time makes the film look like an ordinary missing persons investigation, was a daring thing to do to his audience, who may feel unsatisfied by the lack of a resolution. While the time spent investigating Ôshima’s disappearance is never uninteresting, it’s the reveal near the end that catapults Imamura’s film from a curiosity to an essential.


The Disc

Shôhei Imamura's brilliant meditation on the obstacles of truth in film has found a home on proper DVD via the Masters of Cinema Series. This is spine number 113 in the label's (DVD) line. The dual-layered NTSC disc is region-free, so a perfect option for importers since this is the film's debut as a legitimate, English-friendly release.

The black and white image retains a very natural look, still sporting a good amount of grain and some dirt and scratches. It's in approximately 1.33:1, which is assured to be the original aspect ratio. The press release states that it was sourced from a new high definition restoration. Likely owing to the different ways in which the movie was filmed, including hidden cameras and more traditional means, there's an inconsistency in the quality of the image. The progressive transfer seems to handle it all quite well, but some sequences look obviously sharper and cleaner than others. I wouldn't consider this to be any kind of deficiency, though, and it's difficult to envision any great improvements over what's presented here.

The Japanese mono audio does not always sync exactly with the image but an onscreen note that appears before the film assures us this is a result of the filmmaking methods, again a reference to the inconspicuous capturing of image and sound, rather than a deficiency with the DVD. Some mild hiss remains in the track at times but doesn't prove distracting. When Imamura inserts an eerie piece of music accompanying the medium, the impact, both in the film and through the speakers, is forceful. On the whole, the audio here is fine and, as with the video, unlikely to be bettered anytime soon. English subtitles are provided,though optional, and white in color.

The on-disc extras offered here are a new interview (17:42) with Tony Rayns and a clip (8:28) of Imamura's son Daisuke Tengan speaking with his father about A Man Vanishes. The Rayns interview makes for a perfectly good introduction to the film prior to an initial viewing for those who don't want to feel too lost. Alternatively, it might help to iron out some things post-viewing. In the interview his son conducts, the elder Imamura comes across as very relaxed and wise, puffing on cigarettes.

The original trailer (1:09) for the movie is here too, and deserves a look.

The booklet goes for a solid 36 pages, with an interesting mix of writings. The first piece is excerpted from Imamura's 2004 autobiography and provides a small update on The Rat. It's followed by five paragraphs' worth of Kirirô Urayama's relaying of his time helping to edit A Man Vanishes. A half dozen pages on jôhatsu are next. Most intriguing is the reprinting of Nagisa Ôshima's article on the film, written for the November-December 1967 issue of Eiga geijutsu. The filmmaker is not entirely laudatory of his contemporary's work, concluding late in the piece that "Imamura will probably come to see the error of his ways and cease making work depicting truth." Ôshima's essay, ostensibly on the "technique" used by Imamura, is nonetheless a fascinating read. It is as much about the Japanese reaction to A Man Vanishes, and Ôshima's disapproval of such, as it is Imamura's film.

Some really nifty stills and the usual film and disc credits serve to complement the booklet writings.


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