A MAN VANISHES (Shohei Imamura, 1967)

I do not pretend to know what is “documentary” and what “fiction” in Shohei Imamura’s Ningen Johatsu; but part of the pleasure of this fascinating, ambiguous film is the Keatsian negative capability that is required in order to navigate it. A plastics salesman, Tadashi Oshima, has been missing for more than a year; like thousands of other Japanese men, he chose to vanish, perhaps desirous of the anonymity that his disappearance has afforded him, although from the vantage of the other side, the left-behind side that is being investigated so that he can be found, the opposite is occurring. Through interviews, including those of his fiancée and a mistress, and a piecing together of his existence, Oshima is coming ever more sharply into focus as an individual. Yet this individuality of his is lost as soon as it is found; for circling the absent man is a whirlwind of conjecture, surmise and rumor that assists in keeping his existence elusive. A grown man who seemed unready for responsibility? Hm; just the sort to be overheard muttering “Rosebud.”
     Indeed, in addition to satirizing the truthfulness—or rather tha “truthiness”—of cinéma-vérité, the film evokes memories of both Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952)—films whose persistent investigations into a human life suggest instead the elusive mystery of identity. One might even say that Imamura’s black-and-white film captures the uncapturable nature of individuality and identity; it documents the undocumentable.
     Beginning as an example of a social trend (the disappearance of many), Oshima increasingly points away from exemplification and towards a blur of reality that makes his disappearing act the signal event of his life. Are there costs in this? Is Oshima haunted for leaving us haunted, intent on searching him out?

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