“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”

– William Shakespeare (from As you Like It)

“I’d like to destroy this premise that cinema is fiction.”

– Shohei Imamura

The fuzzy line that separates fiction from reality has become increasingly blurred in recent years. Reality television programs promise to provide viewers with an unscripted look at the life of individuals willing to bare all for our entertainment but there is very little reality found in reality television. Inquisitive cameras, altered environments and skillful editors make participants keenly aware of their involvement in an orchestrated production and truth eventually takes a backseat to drama as would-be stars and starlets compete for their moment in the spotlight.

Cinema has also become progressively more self-aware. The current influx of mocumentaries, docudramas, 3D movies and “found footage” films attempt to obscure reality and mimic authenticity while filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami seem to enjoy encouraging viewer participation in oblique ways. Their films frequently refuse to provide easy answers to the problematic truths they present and directly or indirectly ask audiences to question what they’re seeing on screen. They demonstrate how reality is often subjective, transitory and pliable.

Shohei Imamura’s name might not be as recognizable as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Michael Haneke or Abbas Kiarostami but it should be. This talented Japanese director helped pioneer the kind of ambiguous and self-reflective documentary filmmaking that’s widely popular today. Imamura began his career working as an assistant director to Yasujiro Ozu at Shochiku Studio although the older director had very little influence on Imamura’s own output. During the 1960s Imamura started producing his own films with help from Japan’s Art Theatre Guild (ATG) and he became an important figure in the Japanese New Wave thanks to the critical success of films like PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (1959), THE INSECT WOMAN (1963), THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966) and A MAN VANISHES (1967).

Imamura eventually abandoned narrative film altogether and concentrated on making documentaries throughout most of the 1970s. His films were well received in Japan as well as Europe where he was awarded with two Palme d’Ors at the Cannes Film Festival for THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (1983) and THE EEL (1997) before he passed away in 2006 at age 79 but Americans have been slow to embrace his work. That’s gradually changing thanks to companies such as Criterion, which has released a handful of the director’s films on DVD. This week we can also thank Icarus Films for sponsoring the U.S. Theatrical Premiere of Shohei Imamura’s 1967 film, A MAN VANISHES(aka Ningen johatsu, or The Unexplained Disappearance of a Human Being). 

A MAN VANISHES was never released in the U.S. during it’s initial run but it will have its premiere in New York at the Anthology Film Archives on November 15th and in Los Angeles at Cinefamily on November 16th. The film plays through November 21st and will be shown as part of a weeklong retrospective of Imamura’s work that also includes screenings of KARAYUKI-SAN, THE MAKING OF A PROSTITUTE (1975), THE PIRATES OF BUBUAN (1972), IN SEARCH OF THE UNRETURNED SOLDIERS IN THAILAND (1971) and OUTLAW-MASU RETURNS HOME (1973).

Imamura’s films frequently focused on Japan’s working class and cast light on the country’s rigid class structure while illuminating the impact of war, political strife and social upheaval on individuals as well as families. Outcasts, drifters, prostitutes, criminals and killers populate his films but the director never pities these offbeat characters and seems to relish their imperfections. This might lead you to believe that Imamura’s films are heavy-handed but nothing could be further from the truth. Imamura had a robust sense of humor and seemed to enjoy introducing an element of whimsy or surrealism into his work no matter how bleak the material was. And while he often dealt with very serious subjects his humanism was always on display. Like many Japanese filmmakers, writers and artists from his era, Imamura was also interested in understanding and deconstructing the idea of national identity in the wake of WW2 and the American occupation of his country.

Many of the characters, ideas and themes that concerned Imamura came to fruition in A MAN VANISHES, which is one of the director’s most expansive and fascinating films. It was originally supposed to be a straightforward documentary about the thousands of people that mysteriously disappear in Japan every year. But over time Imamura decided to focus on one man, a youthful plastic salesman named Tadashi Oshima, who vanished without a trace during a business trip in 1965. Imamura limited the scope of his film after he realized that the details of Oshima’s disappearance were complex and deserved his complete attention. But reality and fiction began to collide after the director paid the missing man’s fiancée for her participation and hired an actor (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) to portray an investigative reporter asking questions about Oshima’s disappearance. Oshima’s frustrated and lonely fiancée eventually develops feelings for the actor portraying the reporter causing the film to veer off in strange and unexpected directions. And as Oshima’s family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances begin to share their own stories about the missing man it becomes increasingly apparent that he presented a different face to everyone he knew.

No clear image of Oshima ever takes shape and the reasons behind his disappearance dissolve into a puddle of apprehension, misunderstandings and skewered perspectives as unanswerable questions finally obscure any truths that might emerge. Part documentary and part fiction, A MAN VANISHES refuses to be easily categorized and aggressively defies viewer expectations at every twist and turn. Hidden cameras captured some of the ensuing drama but Imamura also used formal sets where he was able to control events and manipulate the action. While the film focuses on the mysterious disappearance of Oshima it also asks larger questions about personal identity and our impermanent nature while blurring the lines between art and artifice. A MAN VANISHES reminds us that all men ultimately vanish behind carefully constructed personalities that disintegrate after death or in this case, after the credits roll, leaving behind a mere shadow of the people they once were.

If you can’t make it to the U.S. Premiere of A MAN VANISHES don’t despair. Icarus Films will be screening their Shoehei Imamura retrospective at other venues in the future. They’re also planning to release a collection of Imamura’s films in a DVD box set next month. You can find more information about this upcoming release at the Icarus Films’ website.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on on November 15, 2012