The belated American release of Shohei Imamura’s 1967 “A Man Vanishes” has sent critics scrambling to rewrite cinema history, as the explosively provocative film progressively and aggressively blurs distinctions between documentary and fiction. What begins as an investigation into a man’s disappearance soon takes off in one convoluted direction after another, continually shifting cinematic gears. Imamura’s square-framed, black-and-white imagery, in all its various stylistic incarnations, proves as compelling through the docu’s myriad detours as in any of his better-known psychological thrillers. Opened Nov. 15 at Gotham’s Anthology Film Archives, “A Man Vanishes” was worth the 45-year wait.
The film opens on newsreel-style procedural footage of a bureaucrat retrieving and reading from a file on a certain Tadashi Oshima, a 32-year-old plastics salesman who vanished without a trace two years before — one of 91,000 Japanese who inexplicably disappeared that year. Soon Imamura and his crew are interviewing employers and employees of the missing man, gathering contradictory information about his character.
A woman revealed as Oshima’s fiancee, Yoshie Hayakawa, increasingly worms her way into the investigation, which uncovers a case of embezzlement; the company reclaimed the stolen amount out of Oshima’s salary. Rumors of philandering also surface, but one particular woman whom Oshima may have impregnated is tracked down and interviewed, and denies having been pregnant in a scene rife with tense ambiguity.
The film’s progression is inexorably sidetracked by Yoshie onto her hated sister, Sayo, who may have had an affair with Oshima and, according to a spooky old psychic, may even have murdered him. Arguments erupt in the street as a fishmonger who claims to have seen Oshima with Sayo on several occasions squares off against Sayo, who vigorously refutes his testimony. Throughout, Yoshie hurls accusations to which Sayo responds with expressions of hurt sisterly betrayal.
Meanwhile, the documentary crew develops a deep aversion for Yoshie, dubbing her “the rat.” They begin to spy on her, eavesdropping on her declarations of love to the main investigator, who turns out to be an actor (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) hired by Imamura to play the part.
All these chaotic developments, unfolding in offices, alleyways, country lanes and backrooms all over Japan, find equally anarchic filmic expression. Scenes are shot through blinds-slatted windows or with black strips superimposed over faces — frequently the faces of main players plainly visible in other scenes. Sound and image are often wildly out of synch, making it difficult to gauge the sincerity of anyone speaking, or even to figure out who is saying what.
Yoshie’s lovestruck declaration to the investigator is first filmed, hidden-camera-style, in extreme long shot, the two figures barely discernible in a restaurant above police headquarters, then in closer intimacy, and finally in lyrical medium shots, strolling along the beach of a quaint fishing village. The psychic is shown in mysterious flash-frames prior to her actual first appearance, itself fragmented by disorienting jump cuts. The most flamboyant rug-puller, in the middle of a long, dramatic argument transpiring at a teahouse table, finds Imamura demanding that the set be struck, whereupon the walls are lifted to reveal a vast soundstage.