A Man Vanishes (1967) by Shohei Imamura (T)

A closer look on Imamura's 1967 sensational masterwork


'This film is finished, but reality is not'

This is the closing line in Imamura's relentless dive into the depths of human psyche, filmed in the form of a cinema vérité pseudo-documentary regarding the disappearance of Oshima Tadashi, a Japanese plastics salesman. The film is  taking place during the mid 60's, chronologically . In a way, Imamura keeps reminding us this line throughout his identical double closing sequence that depicts a really intense verbal conflict between two sisters who are connected with the aforementioned missing man. During these final 30 minutes, he, somehow, feels the urge to clarify that we are watching a dramatization of these events throughout his cinematic quest. A quest which feels real, but then again it's hard to define between which layers of reality it is moving. Thus, every single time I get the chance to watch Imamura's filmic experiment I find myself asking this very question: who is really 'lost' here and what are we really looking for? Are we in search of a vanished man, a potentially dead man, a person who found the will to break his 'chains' or the examination of a social phenomenon? Possibly all of the above and obviously much more than that.

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Right from the beginning, we get an impression of an utterly chaotic experiment, while, as the story unfolds, we can figure out that the core of the film is carefully being constructed with an amazing, almost surgical precision. An essay, which at first glance seems destined to drive us straight to nowhere. However, it fully succeeds on working under the surface, in a really fascinating way. To be more precise, the thing is that while w are heading towards this dead end, in the meantime, Imamura and his crew, dominated by an almost fetishistic fixation, seem like they want to peel off numerous layers of a modernized society against old fashioned customs, in a parallel with the foundations of human bonds, while they also perform an examination of the inner psychology behind these factors. The camera is used almost like a scalpel, as we watch them perform a number of 'dissections' onto an unknown body and in cold blood. Nevertheless, it manages to remain focused on certain targeted objects. Yes, this is one of these creations which resembles an in-depth introspection regarding its object of examination, an artistic equivalent of an anatomy class for those who are familiar. 

No matter what really lies behind the disappearance of this man, and even after a 2 plus hour marathon of up, close and very personal 'interrogations, confessions, clashes, speculations and revelations by numerous people, still, everything about him remains utterly subjective and unresolved. Murky like reality itself...or at least, a kind of reality interpreted and stretched in a wider scale.

It looks like the exact same process that each one of us utilizes by adapting a piece of reality in order to understand his or her own actions during a critical situation in life. To a certain degree, we all recognize that our own reality is 'fluid'. It keeps transforming through our perspectives to the point where it crosses with the realities of those found around us, known or unknown. This often happens as a result of an urge to build a 'bigger picture'. In other words, an attempt to give some kind of reasonable explanation regarding what lies behind the actions taking place in our lives. It's almost like a scenario written and performed by real life itself, featuring an unprepared, completely amateur cast and set in a completely natural environment.

The end is the beginning is the end. Cut. That's a wrap. End credits.

I chose to make this introduction, having in mind what could potentially form the end of my writing. Therefore, I envisioned a text that defies a certain kind of narrative, in an attempt to make it look like kind of messy, by trying to imitate just a few of the characteristics which Imamura's heroes and heroines possess. The truth is that my words can barely resemble the enormous power behind Imamura's revolutionary vision, which comes fully packed with his prolific body of work.

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We are talking about a filmography full of edgy, unpolished, brutal as much as soft, overwhelmingly impetuous, as much as preserved when needed, kind of imagery. This a hardcore cinematic universe full of primitive sexual desires, violent instincts and life affirming racial clashes, which spins around a world full of pigs, pimps and prostitutes. And even more, a variety of characters and moods given in a profoundly naturalistic, almost pagan and symbolic way. Human beings who transcend above gender discrimination or any other kind of known social stereotypes. People who always strive to find their place under the sun, most often the hard way. Victims of situations who willingly take responsibility of their own victimization by struggling between an ongoing modernization and ancestral traditional foundations. They fight for life, but they also dare looking death right in the eye. They try to resist by acknowledging their full distrust towards a society that imposes order as the ideal. Finally, they pay their dues like, almost all of us, or at least those who are willing to do so. These figures move away from this, most of the times, utopian cinematic elegance and righteous order we may love, or love to hate. Of course, all of the above traits, cinematically speaking, can easily work as a double edged sword, but Imamura successfully avoids making them look flat or even completely immoral. They often adjust according to the circumstances, though they rarely compromise.

Imamura is definitely one of the pioneers of Japanese new wave cinema, a chapter which is extremely big and too crucial to analyze, as it includes too many topics and even more subtopics. For those who imply that the Japanese new wave is just another form of the beloved French "Nouvelle Vague", I can only say that such a point is completely out of any reasonable context. Very briefly, this happens for the simple reason that even if the two movements, chronologically, almost fall within each other, semiologically speaking, there are quite a few important differences. But I will not go on any further on this topic.

Imamura started his career as Ozu's clapper boy. Before that, he was supporting himself by trading goods in the Japanese black market. Thus, we may understand the locations where he collected the pieces in order to form his cinematic mindset. This is exactly the world we are being introduced throughout his films during the 60's and after the four dramatic satires he shot during the very late 50's, at the very beginning of his directorial career in Nikkatsu. Before that, he had also worked for the outstanding director Yuzo Kawashima, who followed him in Nikkatsu.

The 60's begin with 'Pigs, pimps & prostitutes', his iconic trilogy which consists of the 1961 'Pigs & battleships' followed 2 years later by his 'Insect woman'. He completes this puzzle in 1964 with the release of its final installment, the breathtaking masterpiece that 'Intentions of murder' is. This is a landmark for Japanese new wave movement and marks the point where Imamura epitomizes his view regarding the post war Japanese social consciousness. He clearly shows his teeth against Ozu's clean cut - zen like - Japanese to the bone, lovable characters and their complete devotion in hierarchy matters. He wants to change the game and he succeeds in his own way, right next to all the other innovators of his era.

He continues by creating his own production company supported by Nikkatsu and Art Guild Theatre. He directs the pitch dark tragic comedy that 'The pornοgraphers' is. In 1968, he is set to direct 'The profound desires of gods', a 3 hour - full of symbolism - epic cinematic vision. In this work, he highlights the sinister effect of modern industrialization which clashes against a forgotten tribal community. It is a financial disaster  for both him and Nikkatsu, which is already suffering a huge financial crisis. For almost ten years, Imamura is shooting TV documentaries. This is until he performs his amazing comeback in 1979 with the iconic, multilayered chronic of Iwao Enokizu based on the true story of τηε real life serial killer Nisiguchi, titled 'The vengeance is mine'. Ken Ogata delivers one of the most amazing performances in universal cinematic history and Imamura's film is considered  a pure masterclass regarding the genre. In 1981, he shoots a truly mesmerizing period drama called 'Eijanaika'.

Two years later he decides to direct his take on Fukuzawa's masterful novel and of course a remake on Kinoshita's 1958 'The ballad of Narayama'. Not only he manages to create a classic masterpiece but 'The ballad', aside from all the prizes won and all of its critical appraisal, is what I honestly consider as the quintessence of modern anthropocentric cinema and one of my top ten films of all times. In fact, one of the most wonderful, genuinely moving and thoroughly intriguing as much as hair-raising pieces of art I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing with literally all of my senses, so far, in my life. I  never, ever forget the way I felt after the first viewing and the definitive part that this certain film had regarding the transformation of my entire perspective, not just on cinema and arts in general, but on humanity as a whole.

Four years after 'The ballad' he films 'Zegen', the adventures of a Japanese immigrant in Hong Kong turned into a pimp, where Ken Ogata thrives once again as the main character, Iheji Muraoka. In 1989, he releases his 'Black rain', the unsurpassable, elegiac masterpiece regarding the Hioshima aftermath. Eight years after he hits back with his amazing 'Eel', a unique hybrid of drama, comedy and erotic thriller. He shares the Cannes 'Palme D'or' with Kiarostami's 'Taste of cherry' and one year later, he releases 'Dr. Akagi'. Finally, in 2001 he 'composes' his swan song, the surreal, sexually charged satire 'Warm water under a red bridge' featuring one of the most amazing, among so many, leading roles that the beloved actor Koji Yakusho has brought on the silver screen.

A real 'tour de force' performance by Sumiko Sakamoto as Orin in 'The ballad of Narayama'




After this quick revision, we go back in 1967, which is a real turning point in Imamura's career. 'A man vanishes' comes exactly at the point between his 1966 histrionic satire 'The pornographers' and the disastrous financial flop that came along with 'The profound desires of gods' in 1968. This is another hint regarding this certain work's great importance.

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Basically, the main idea behind 'A man vanishes' is this: Imamura's camera following the steps of  Oshima's (the missing salesman) fiance callled Yoshie and actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, as they wander from place to place, interviewing people who knew the salesman, in an effort to trace his lost footprints. Eventually, they try to process all the possible reasons behind his disappearance. It sounds simple, but it is not. The exchange of events, confessions and conclusions is taking place quite rapidly. This pacing makes the film quite a challenging experience to follow, especially without having a clear and, most of all, an open mind.

As I said before, an exaggerated analysis of such a film does not really matter at all, for the simple reason that Imamura's plan is to derail everything in order to make his points and also to refer to a Japanese social phenomenon known as 'Johatsu'. In brief, 'johatsu' stands for a state of complete evaporation of an individual against all kinds of social bonds. As Imamura informs us, at the time, 91.000 white collars (and not only) disappeared from their families and friends almost every year.

The film's opening sequence storms outquickly with a thorough description of Oshima's physical appearance narrated by a police admimistrative. We meet his boss who, as we can comprehend, is also some kind of father figure to the missing man. We are are informed that it is through this man he met his fiance, the woman who is in search of him.

Yoshie Hayakawa and actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi trying to pick up information

As we follow Imamura's on-screen duet, we slowly sink into a void of numerous confessions and various information regarding Oshima's personality and habits, viewed from different perspectives. We watch his biological family expressing a hope for his well-being, but we are also taking a peek in a kind of ritual which is taking place through the presence of an old lady acting like a psychic. This sequence points out another dimension, a view which comes off as upsetting and disorienting, more than anything else regarding the case. Someone may assume this is a statement regarding traditional beliefs and how they leave a mark on a modern society concerning the human existence or the absence, in a world not so far from the one we live nowadays. Imamura tackles this issue with a very sharp, but also discreet way. He does not wish to exploit by creating a debate for the sake of an on screen contradiction. Nevertheless, he wants to stress the actual gap between logical thought progression and how easily we get distracted from it by letting the sequence speak for itself. The parents seem stressed by the facts and from the presence of the camera, almost lost, but at the same time they find the will to ask for forgiveness from Yoshie on behalf of their missing son.

We follow the camera and the two 'leads' literally taking Oshima's route just before his traces disappeared. We get to meet his former lovers, we listen to the mixed and ambiguous comments made by his close friends and colleagues in an almost frenetic pace. Of course, given the chance, Imamura can't help allowing himself from making his own 'comment' regarding the terms of working hierarchy in Japanese society. That comes through a case of embezzlement where Oshima was found stealing an amount of money from his job, which he returned back. Later on, this trait comes back in the form of a short but pompous speech delivered by Oshima's boss and father figure on his workers. It looks kind of funny, but so ironically poignant, all at the same time.

It's shot after shot after shot. Imamura runs the show in an intense way. He obviously wants us to get a sense of an identical feeling, as if we would go searching for our own missing person, our relative, friend or lover. But I have to stress once again that this is just the surface. To make it even more challenging and distressful, we have all these amazing jumping cuts and a constant - out of synch - narrative, especially in the first half of the film. There are moments where a black mark makes its appearance, covering the upper half face of those who want to speak a few word,s but they do not wish to reveal their faces in front of the camera. All this audiovisual complexity gives a mystical but irresistible avant - garde feeling, which adds an amazingly innovative as much as pure anarchic Warhol - esque essence on top of all the other virtues. It is disorienting and partially discomforting for an average viewer, but as we mentioned before, this is Imamura calling us here and he will play in his field exactly as he wants. He will not compromise for no one and for nothing.

Oshima's former lover gives a piece of information hidden in a veil of onscreen secrecy

Beyond a certain point, Imamura starts focusing on Yoshie rather than the actual case of the missing man. The truth is that Yoshie is a particularly strange personality, at least as she appears through Imamura's lens. She gradually starts losing her grip and her faith regarding the case, although at first she seems quite persistent. Someone might say she also becomes a bit fascinated by all this camera presence. Imamura is looking at her like an interesting study object, he and his crew refer to her as a 'rat' they follow and who is leading them along the way through this labyrinth. The film starts changing tone and it becomes more of an essay on existentialism. There is also an out of nowhere case of Yoshie developing a crush on the actor who accompanies her along the way. This is the point where we get the impression that we move into uncharted waters. Yoshie starts focusing more on how she is going to to get over this loss rather than the actual objective. She is obviously feeling disoriented and it is becoming more and more obvious that Imamura will have to use a bit of improvisation in order to go on with the process of the film.

In addition, we get to meet Yoshie's sister, a character who will play a fundamental part until the final sequence. It's through their relationship that we have the chance to observe Yoshie's darker side. At the same time, the film adapts a quite Bergman - esque feel into it. Yoshie, who obviously has something like an underlying inferiority complex regarding her sexuality towards men, has suppressed hostile feelings against her sister that come from the past. Until that moment, she mostly believes that her almost non - existent sexuality is one of the main reasons that forced Oshima to run away. Suddenly, and after the initial meeting with her sister, we watch her react. She behaves like she is trying to find a scapegoat. Partially, she is convinced, almost dictated, by a psychic old lady that her sister was having an affair with Oshima. Later on, a testimony made by a shop owner located at the final place where Oshima was apparently seen, will revive the feud between Yoshie and her sister. The shop owner seems pretty sure that he saw Oshima and a woman who looks like her sister strolling around the place. This is the point where Imamura will find the chance to orchestrate his final sequence, which, as I mentioned beforem comes in an almost split in half but identical verbal conflict between the two women.

This time, Imamura will take the chance to exploit the feud between the two sisters as much as he can in order to present some kind of build - up, which in reality will never come to its peak. At first we watch Yoshie and her sister in an enclosed tea - room accompanied by Shigeru Tsuyuguchi. The confrontation starts quietly, until Yoshie spits out the accusation that she is pretty sure there was something going on between Oshima and her sister. To back up the speculation, Imamura himself will step inside the scene with the shop owner who implies that he saw them together. As a result, Yoshie starts acting like an interrogator. Suddenly, through a generic shot, we literally watch the set up collapsing, a trait which indicates that we are found inside a film stage. Everything is staged, although the climax seems utterly convincing. Just like a well-organised reality show. Following this sequence, the ongoing confrontation is brought on the streets with unsuspected people gathering around to watch this verbal 'war' that has expanded between the two sisters and the shop owner who insists. This looks almost like a complete decompression rather than an actual ending, identical of these TV shows where people go to let some steam off against each other rather than actually solve any kind of difference in public.

'This is fiction. This drama is originated from Mr. Oshima's disappearance'

This is how Imamura closes his film, in a very cold manner and leaving us almost exactly where he found us. After 130 minutes of bombarding us with this mixture of fictitious and real life events, almost like an augmented reality, he will let us do the aftermath on what we witnessed through his lens. Overall, this Imamurian experiment reminded me of Shakespeare's subject in his plays, and a beautiful article I had read regarding this view and couldn't agree more. The author wrote that in these plays, life is presented like the theater, essentially a fiction, and the task of the individual is to live in light of this realization. Nevertheless, in an alternate reality, I would love to ask both creators this cliche but very certain question: how thin is the line between reality and theatrical fiction, Imamura - san?

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Asian Film Vault: A Man Vanishes (1967) by Shohei Imamura (T)
A Man Vanishes (1967) by Shohei Imamura (T)
A closer look on Imamura's 1967 sensational masterwork
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