Icarus Films // 1967 // 130 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 10th, 2013
"Radical in scope, technique, and aesthetic."
The triumvirate of Japanese cinema no doubt includes the directors Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu. All three had prolific, decades-long careers that overlapped with the great arthouse explosion of the late fifties and early sixties. Though I would be the first to affirm the greatness of these directors and their work, the shadow they cast often keeps viewers from seeking out the slightly more buried treasures of their countrymen. One such director is Shohei Imamura. Though his similarly prolific career has been well-represented on home video (thanks largely to the Criterion collection, who've given us a strong cross-section of his career), one of his most famous and beguiling films, A Man Vanishes, has long been unavailable. Following in the wake of the films American debut after decades, Icarus Films gives us not only a great-looking version of Imamura's classic film, but includes five of his contemporary documentaries as a bonus slate.
In 1965, 91,000 people disappeared in Japan. They left no body, no note, and no trace. One of those who disappeared is Tadashi Oshima. In 1967, Shohei Imamura decided to make a documentary about him and his family's efforts to find him. What starts out as a hidden-camera style documentary becomes an exercise in discovering the tenuous line between fiction and reality.
A Man Vanishes starts off like any other late sixties documentary. A bit of shaky camera, a strange story slowly revealed, and tension flaring up as the director and his crew dig deeper. As Oshima's story is recounted several possible motives for his disappearance -- from embezzlement to sexual affairs -- crop up, with suspicion increasingly falling on the sister of Oshima's fiancée. However, as the film goes on, it's hard not to notice just how perfectly staged so much of it is. Every shot is a masterful composition, perfectly mirroring the anarchic developments of the "plot." As the film continues, the line between documentary reality and cinematic fantasy increasingly blurs until an ambiguous climax is reached.
This is Imamura's investigation into the limits of the documentary form and it shows that already Imamura has mastered the tools of cinematic storytelling. Of course, he has help, hiring an actor to play the lead investigator in his documentary, but the beautifully claustrophobic atmosphere is all Imamura. Though Kurosawa's Rashomon is the most famous example of self-reflexive Japanese cinema, A Man Vanishes deserves to stand alongside it as a close second.
A Man Vanishes looks pretty good for a low-budget film from 1967. The print itself is in okay shape; there's some damage in the form of specks and dirt, but overall it's a very watchable presentation. The contrast is well-maintained, and grain is kept appropriately rendered in this black-and-white film. The mono Japanese audio sounds a bit rough, which isn't surprising, given the catch-as-catch-can nature of the production. However, English subtitles are available.
The extras in this set start with five feature-length documentaries that Imamura made between 1971 and 1975. The standout is Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute. In this 75=minute documentary, Imamura focuses on Kikuyo Zendo, a "comfort girl" sent from Japan to Malaysia in advance of soldiers prior to World War II. Imamura uses his questioning of Zendo to reveal what the life of these prostitutes is like, as well as how the entire nation seemed to collude in tricking these women into leaving their homes to become an kind of commodity.
In the early 1970s, Imamura made a pair of films, In Search of Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia and In Search of Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand, whose titles are pretty self-explanatory. Shorter (45 and 50 minutes each) than his other films and shot in color, these two documentaries act as travelogues as Imamura travels to talk to those who chose to leave the Japanese Army during WWII. In Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home Imamura is there to document the return to Japan of one of these soldiers. Finally, The Pirates of Burbuan goes to a remote part of the Philippines to document the rival gangs of pirates that ply the high-seas trade.
These six films are presented on four discs house in a double-wide case that also houses a small booklet. The booklet contains a short essay on Imamura's documentaries, a text biography of Imamura, and descriptions of the shorter documentaries.
There's very little about A Man Vanishes that's emotionally engaging. Imamura is playing with cinema, with the line between documentary and reality, and with what his cameras can capture. It's very playful in many ways, but it's a story that can be hard to get attached to. There's also something disconcerting about the way that Imamura manipulates everyone involved in the production. Hiring an actor to play someone in a documentary isn't the most scandalous thing to do, but there's a definite feeling that if he's going to play with us and with his subjects, something more spectacular should come out in the end other than "Wow, the line between reality and fiction is very thin," which is pretty much the film's message.
The film is also really long. At a little over two hours, it feels a little indulgent as a documentary project. Shaving 20 or 30 minutes off would have blunted Imamura's impact slightly, but I think it would leave audience much more amenable to the film's manipulations.
Like many "rediscovered" films, Shohei Imamura's 1967 A Man Vanishes received acclaim during its official American debut in 2012, even landing on several year-end best-of lists (much like Melville's Army of Shadows a few years earlier). It's not hard to see why; the film is an interesting experiment in the limits of documentary methods that comes decades before the more famous comparable film (Kiarostami's Close-Up). A Man Vanishes is playful and exciting, sure to please cinephiles everywhere. Though it's not a film for those not versed in the context of Japanese cinema, those who pick up this set will likely enjoy the five bonus documentaries as much as A Man Vanishes, making this an easy set to recommend to those familiar with Imamura's work.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated