Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Vengeance is Shohei Imamura: A Man Vanishes

There are not a lot of fact-checkers working in the documentary film industry.  Yet, many people assume anything they saw in a movie billing itself as a doc must be true.  Although it had its initial Japanese release in 1967, Shohei Imamura’s docu-deconstruction A Man Vanishes (trailer here) delivers a timely challenge to such blind faith.  Yet, it is still gritty and noir enough to easily fit within the Asia Society’s mini-retrospective, Vengeance is Shohei Imamura when it screens (for free) this Saturday.

As a salaryman with a steady job and a fiancée, Tadashi Oshima initially seems like an aptly unremarkable representative of the reported 91,000 Japanese citizens who vanished without a trace two years prior.  However, as Imamura’s on-camera investigator and Oshima’s intended, Yoshie Hayakawa, his pursue the trail, a very different picture emerges.

Oshima had been caught embezzling company funds and was also carrying on with other women, including perhaps Hayakawa’s sister Sayo, who denies the accusation vociferously.  In fact, the film ostensibly hinges on the question of who is telling the truth: Sayo Hayakawa or the witnesses placing her with Oshima.  It all so disillusions Yoshie Hayakawa, she develops a romantic attachment for the actor playing Imamura’s investigator.

Several times during the course of the third act, Imamura directly states that this film is fictional.  He even literally tears down the backdrops he has assembled midway through the climatic confrontation.  Yet audiences are so programmed to accept the documentary form as fact, we still believe when the actors take their “he said-she said” show out into the streets. It is like we can’t stop being had by Imamura.

In many ways, the dramatized docu-hybrid elements of Vanishes seem decades ahead of their time, especially the trippy sequences involving the shaman advising Hayakawa, whose rituals would not be out of place in a straight up genre picture.  On the other hand, the deliberately desynchronized soundtrack harkens back to the Nouvelle Vague’s trick bag.  By the same token, Kenji Ishigura’s black-and-white cinematography faithfully preserves a street level time capsule of Tokyo in the mid 1960’s.

At one point, one of the witnesses contradicting Sayo Hayakawa protests: “I have no reason to lie.”  Essentially, Imamura’s entire film serves as a rejoinder saying: “yes, but you have no reason to tell the truth either.”  Evidently, Vanishes started out legit, but circumstances forced Imamura’s meta-hybrid hand.  Still, the implications regarding the limits of objective filmmaking remain the same.  Imamura would in fact make several more conventional documentaries, but the less politically charged Vanishes, with its woman (or women) scorned, is more thematically compatible with his hardboiled morality plays.  An enigmatic puzzle every cineaste should enjoy chewing on, A Man Vanishes screens free of charge this Saturday (1/18) at the Asia Society, as part of their new Vengeance is Shohei Imamura film series.