Friday, November 16, 2012

A Man Vanishes

When director Shoehei Imamura started this black-and-white docudrama in the mid-1960s, he intended to investigate why tens thousands of people disappeared every year in Japan at the time—and how, as a cop wonders aloud at the start of the film, anyone can slide out of view in such a small, crowded country. But Imamura wound up exploring an even bigger mystery.

Tadashi Oshima, the salesman who is the ostensible subject of the film, is almost aggressively ordinary, as nearly everyone interviewed about him agrees. A go-along guy, they say, Oshima is not too bright, not much good at his job (“Modern people are businesslike. He wasn’t,” says one), and a certified sot. It’s as if, until Oshima left home for a business trip one day and never came back, he never did a single unusual or interesting thing. Yet intimations of oddness keep seeping into his story.

For the first hour or so, Oshima’s jilted fiancée, Yoshie Hayakawa, and the interrogator Imamura paired with her (actually an actor, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) talk to friends, relatives, and former colleagues of Oshima’s, retracing his steps in the days preceding his disappearance and attempting to figure out why he left. Their investigation seems straightforward enough, but eerie flashbacks to a medium Oshima’s family consulted hint that the meandering narrative may be flowing toward some unsettling truth. You also feel the director’s elbow in your ribs when sly inserts of regimented city life or unsettlingly shaky montages of hand-held footage play behind placid speculation, as when Oshima’s boss wonders what could possibly have motivated him to abandon his job while the camera gazes down at the sterile floor of the plastics factory he worked for.

Periodic inserts of the filmmakers plotting their next move on a chart or discussing Yoshie, who they call “the rat,” noodge us just as insistently, reminding us that documentary filmmakers shape their narratives too, fitting the banalities and mysteries of life into the Procrustean beds of hero and villain, motive and plot. Even the people Yoshie and Tsuyuguchi interview sometimes try to fit the story into a familiar frame, like the woman who, after telling the uneventful tale of Oshima’s departure for the train station on the day of his disappearance, goes back to embroider it with: “Come to think of it, he looked lonely.”

When Imamura superimposes a tabloid-style black bar across the top of a face, it’s presumably to protect the identity of someone who didn’t want to be recognized. But when he plays with that convention in scenes where the subject’s face is not always hidden, it’s another way of showcasing his manipulation of the story. When Yoshie and Oshima’s father visit the medium, for instance, the camera looks down on her through vertical black bars, the high camera angle and the bars themselves obscuring all but the lower half of her visitors’ bodies and often bisecting her own. That provocative perspective makes it impossible not to wonder about what’s going on outside the frame.

Imamura himself seems to get bored with his subject after a while, turning from Oshima’s disappearance to investigate Yoshie instead. The film puts the diffident-seeming fiancee on trial, questioning her motives for agreeing to be in the movie, mocking her when she starts falling for Tsuyuguchi, and characterizing her as the villain when one of her sisters, Sayoko, enters the story and the two start a circular argument whose roots reach all the way back to their childhood—or so we’re told.

Then Imamura orders his crew to strike the set and the film makes a 180-degree turn, the walls that had surrounded the cast falling away as the camera pulls back to reveal a soundstage. That literal breach of the fourth wall signals the beginning of a surrealistic ending that straddles the border between fact and fiction. As Yoshie and Sayoko continue to fight and various other people side with one sister or the other, Imamura and his cast urge each other and us to question everything, from what we’ve just seen to the nature of reality. How can any of us ever really know, they ask, where our knowledge of other people ends and our beliefs about them begin?

Written for The L Magazine

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