Imamura’s A Man Vanishes starts out as a documentary surrounding the disappearance of a plastics salesman but eventually becomes a discourse on truth, reality and cinema. We begin in documentary fashion by paying a visit to the police station and having the details of the missing man related to us. We then hear from the man’s fiancée who it seems is very keen to find him, and his family who are worried but also hurt and disappointed. It transpires that Oshima, the absent centre of the film, had many secrets those closest to him did not know. He had previously been suspended from his place of work for embezzlement, though the money had been repaid and the matter settled. He was also a drinker and according to his friends had been expressing doubts about his planned marriage, either because he did not want to marry or because he disapproved of his future sister-in-law’s supposedly ‘immoral’ lifestyle. There is also a rumour he’d been having an affair with a waitress which resulted in a pregnancy.
All this information uncovered and still no real clue as to Oshima’s whereabouts, Imamura takes the bold step of deciding to put the fiancée on television. After this things start to change, the fiancee seems to have lost her zeal to find her intended and, as it turns out, has developed feelings for the interviewer on the documentary (who is actually an actor). Shortly after this they visit a kind of spirit medium who claims the future sister-in-law has poisoned Oshima and disposed of the body because she too was in love with him and did not wish to share.
This ultimately leads to a showdown in a tea house in which the fiancée confronts her sister with the evidence so far and seems unwilling to believe her denials. Except at the climactic moment Imamura orders the set to come down around them and we see they’re just in a pretend tea house room in the middle of a soundstage. This ‘reality’ was fabricated, and other filmmakers will come here to make their fictional truths or untruthful realities. We thought we were watching fact, but it was a construction.
The final scene of the film then follows this up further, Imamura announces what we’re watching is a reconstruction, a fiction, as a man swears he saw Oshima going up the stairs with the sister, which she flatly denies. Another witness then shows up and reaffirms his testimony about having seen Oshima and the sister, and the debate continues with some of the participants becoming quite irate. Can we believe anything we’re seeing here, what or how much of this is truth? What is truth anyway, what is reality?
Was there a man who vanished, are these the people in the his life? If they are, are they themselves or have they begun to play versions of themselves more suited to film? Imamura later said this film might more rightly have been called ‘When a Woman Becomes an Actress’, and it is true that you can see a definite change in the fiancée after her television appearance. Or can you, is it just the way Imamura presents it or has the change really taken places since the woman became a ‘character’ watched by the TV audience? Just as we’ve been unable to reconstruct a accurate picture of Oshima through the descriptions of those who knew him, our vision of the major players, the fiancée and her sister is also clouded by Imamura’s presence.
Imamura’s assertions that objective documentary making is pointless and that greater truth can be displayed through fictional film making are carried right the way through the film. What you largely have are ideas which are then reconstructed by the film maker in the editing suite. It’s a document of real people and real lives but only from one perspective. Fictional film making, in Imamura’s view, is better able to articulate human truths than this patching together of material which cannot be a fully accurate representation.
A Man Vanishes is one of Imamura’s most intriguing films but nevertheless has been unavailable with English subtitles for a long time. Thankfully Masters of Cinema will be releasing a new version on DVD in a couple of months the viewing of which will, hopefully, help to clear things up a little (but then again, maybe not).