The late Japanese New Wave mainstay Shôhei Imamura said he liked his movies messy, and usually that meant seeing through civilized falsities to what was humanly true. At least once it meant the truth itself needed seeing through. Fiction twice earned him top honors at Cannes, but he also made one of the early and essential fact-fiction hybrids, whose U.S. premiere anchors a condensed, doc-centric Imamura retrospective at Anthology Film Archives this week.
A Man Vanishes, from 1967, begins as a procedural missing-person report but inclines irrevocably toward self-conscious speculation. “It’s not necessarily that fiction is false and nonfiction is true,” Imamura’s narration tells us, and the film goes on to grapple with that discovery. For a time, it assumes the viewpoint of the vanished man’s fiancée, who troublingly implicates her sister in his disappearance and more troublingly trades away her own interest in the case for a crush on her interviewer. (Also worth noting is that the interviewer is played by an actor, last seen in a fictive Imamura film as a rapist whose victim rewards him with an affair.)
More than once, A Man Vanishes reveals its makers in a sort of story conference, steering away from literal facts in search of emotional authenticity; later, it halts a climactic confrontation between the sisters to show that the scene was contrived on a soundstage. Fitting, this urge toward prismatic subjectivity, from the country that brought us Rashomon. But Imamura took it further, conveying unknowability not just as a worthy subject unto itself but also an unnerving cultural handicap.
As it happens, Japan did not have that market cornered; arguably, A Man Vanishes is as much an heir to Antonioni’s L’Avventura, another futile missing-person search in which the searchers drift toward hooking up, as it is an augury of Kiarostami’s Close-Up, another deliberately self-collapsing documentary paradox. In retrospect, Imamura seems to have paved the world’s modern moviemaking crossroads.
Imamura kept going with fiction, but money got tight in the ’70s, so he spent those years on modest TV budgets, getting to know the “deserted people” whom he believed his nation had sacrificed for its own development. These included women forced into sexual slavery, like the withered specimen of tragic fortitude who recounts her life in Karayuki-San, the Making of a Prostitute, as well as many “unreturned soldiers” in Malaysia and Thailand, who with hard feelings stayed estranged from Japan after World War II.
These documentaries do a lot of hanging around in graveyards and airports, those portentous thresholds in which, like some anguished specter, lurks “the Japanese spirit” of which Imamura’s subjects often speak. Homecomings do happen, but they’re bewildered at best. One soldier did return and even got his own Imamura film, Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home—and with it an explosion of fratricidal hatred for and from the brother who apparently didn’t want him back. So much dispossession is a lot to take, but at least it comes with the filmmaker’s earned faith in human resiliency; to him, it was all a fine mess.