Film Review: A Man Vanishes

Forty-five years after it was released in Japan, <i>A Man Vanishes</i> gets its U.S. premiere&#8212;a case where a film&#8217;s exhibition has been almost as elusive as its protagonist.

As one of the first major “mockumentaries,” A Man Vanishes should be intriguing enough, but the director, the late Shohei Imamura, has much more in store for his audience. Thanks to Icarus Films and New York’s Anthology Film Archives, viewers will get to sort out for themselves—if they can—what is fact and what is fiction.

In Imamura’s story, a plastics salesman named Tadashi Oshima has been missing for several years, since 1963, when he disappeared on a business trip. Most of the first half of A Man Vanishes is comprised of interviews with those who knew Oshima, including friends, family and business partners (the last revealing the fact that Oshima had embezzled from his company). The researcher conducting the interviews (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) is joined by Oshima’s concerned fiancée (Yoshie Hayakawa) as they discover other disturbing facts, including the man’s penchant for hard drinking and womanizing.

A Man Vanishes takes a decidedly unexpected turn when the researcher and fiancée begin to lose interest in Oshima and find comfort and affection with each other. Later, the fiancée questions her actress-sister about her possible motives for killing Oshima, but even this sequence evolves into something startling and strange. Ultimately, the riddle of the disappearance becomes less and less relevant as the film questions what is true and real.

If A Man Vanishes is entirely fictional, Imamura creates a world as actual as the one Jim McBride devised for his more humorous “mockumentary” from the same year, 1967, David Holzman’s Diary. Both films use the techniques of cinéma-vérité (in stark black-and-white). However, Imamura’s project stands out today as more ambitious—a true meditation on the medium with an increasing sense of unease as it slowly moves along (with echoes of Citizen Kane). Some might find the pacing just too slow; another potential complaint is that the film seems contrived to have the camera rolling during the moments the investigator (and others “behind the camera”) are confessing private thoughts.

Even for those who have seen the kind of productions since inspired by this daring experiment, A Man Vanishes should not be missed—or forgotten.