A Man Vanishes (1967) is a fascinating film from one of my favorite Japanese directors, Shohei Imamura, that is difficult to categorize. It is intended as a documentary but takes on elements of fiction and staging throughout. However, it is the mystery of how so many people can disappear in such a small country-at the time of the film Imamaura states that in the last year 91,000 were disappeared in Japan. This film looks at the case of the disappearnce of a plastics salesman named Tadashi Oshima. Imamura and his crew set out to discover what happened to Tadashi by interviewing those who knew him best—his co-workers, friends, and his fiancée Yoshie. All the while gathering contradictory information concerning his character. But as their investigation delves deeper into Tadashi's dubious business ventures and his enigmatic relationship with Yoshie and, possibly, her sister, the line between filmmaker and subject, fact and fiction, blur. It can be said to be radical in its scope, aesthetic, and technique for what is essentially a nonfiction film.
The DVD is worth it for A Man Vanishes alone but Icarus Films also includes five other fascinating documentaries by Imamura: In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia (45 min.) In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand (50 min.) The Pirates of Bubuan (46 min.) Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home (48 min.) Karayuki-San, the Making of a Prostitute (75 min.)
In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia (1971) is Imamura's first foray into SE Asia and perhaps the least compelling of the bunch. One of the prospective subjects of his documentary has already died apparently of drug and alcohol addiction. However, the other subject is a an Islam convert, who has found an identity, acceptance, and perhaps atonement for his role as a soldier in the war as well, was a fascinating case study. These films are interesting in how they document what SE Asia was like in the 70s as well.
In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand (1971) was more interesting than the previous film mainly due to the three fascinating characters that Imamura has brought together for this film. Imamura is interested in why they chose to remain behind rather than return to Japan after the war. I found it fascinating that two of the three still have strong pro-emperor feelings and are visibly upset when one of them states that the emperor is human just like them. There is frank discussion about the atrocities they committed and their disrespect of the kempeitai (secret police), their officers that made them do questionable things as well as the fact that they raped and kept women. All of them plan to die in Thailand and feel that there must not be anything left for them in Japan. Imamura is particularlly moved by Matsu who refuses the interview fee and rode 16 hours 3rd class with his own money back to Chang Mai and is revisited when Imamura makes another documentary about him: Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home.
Before that, Imamura went to the Philippines to film The Pirates of Bubuan (1972). It was another fascinating analysis of truth versus subjective reality. Are there pirates in Bubuan? There is a great build up at meeting these dangerous bandits, but once Imamaura gets to the island he meets a serious young man and his family who seems to be on the run, but not overly hostile to others trying to survive among the islands. There is a group of sea gypsies who are discriminated against by Muslims because of their so-called lack of religion, who live a subsistence lifestyle. Imamura investigates their history religion and other traditions and finds much sympathy for them.
In Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home (1973) we get another true life drama unfolding on film. Matsu has come home to make sure his younger sister is being taken care of and finds that she is living with her children after divorcing and fleeing his violent alcoholic older brother who beat her and her daughters. He is a piece of work, with five divorces and somehow retained custody of a nine year old daughter, who he says will be the sole heir to the family fortune, which he has obtained by dubious means. He declaring Matsu killed in action even after learning of this mistake. Matsu confronts him to no avail and leaves Japan disgusted by the greed he sees in contemporary Japan:"I think Japanese people are all insane with greed. I came home and found why Japan had achieved this development...It was for money, wasn't it? The Emperor must've started the war because of he wanted money,too."
The last documentary in this collection is Karayuki-San, the Making of a Prostitute (1975), which is yet another devastating personal narrative of suffering, tragedy, and humility. It is a documentary on one of the Japanese "karayuki-san," who were women who left their homes in Japan to work as prostitutes in Japanese-occupied territories during World War II. Many of these women were told that they were doing this to support their families because of the extreme poverty in wartime Japan. This woman, Kikuyo Zendo, one of the countless Japanese women who were kidnapped or otherwise sold into sexual slavery in order to service the Japanese military in Southeast Asia. She was tricked and then was resigned to her fate. She was coming form a poor family that were burakumin, a caste that was discriminated against in Japan. She was 74 years old at the time of filming, and she offered a frank and harrowing testimony into her horrific wartime experiences, and the reasons that have led her to choose exile over repatriation. Perhaps, the most powerful and heartfelt of Imamaura's excellent documentaries in this set.
Also included is a 12 page booklet with an original essay on Imamura's documentary work by Japanese critic Tadao Sato.