Home Video Hovel- A Man Vanishes, by Scott Nye
Though this new set from Icarus Films bears the title only of its most famous entry, what you get here are actually six documentaries that Japanese director Shohei Imamura made between 1967 and 1975. However, even the “documentary” label is something of a misnomer, as we quickly discover Imamura’s fascination with issues of representation, truth, and even facts. A Man Vanishes confronts this struggle most directly (and, by extension, inconclusively), but all of these films are as much about the process of making them as they are their more directly-stated purpose.
In that landmark film, Imamura and his team investigate the disappearance of a man, and the family and job he left behind, as a means of questioning what turns out to be a surprisingly widespread phenomenon in Japan at the time. But the idea of extracting oneself from his or her assigned station is a recurring one, most obviously in his two In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers films (first, in Malaysia; then, in Thailand), which examine the experiences of Japanese soldiers who abandoned their units in World War II and never went back to their homeland. One of the subjects of Thailand then becomes the subject of a whole other film, Outlaw-Matsu Comes Home, which is sort of like a nightmare version of the popular refrain, “you can’t go home again.” The Pirates of Bubuan, meanwhile, examines whole communities sprung from exile, and Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute centers around the issue of kidnapping and forced prostitution, itself a forced extraction.
These “hidden worlds” are obviously a fascination for Imamura, but it makes for rather natural documentary subject matter. As Kikuyo tours the filmmaker around the buildings that once housed her brothels, passers-by can’t help but stare and wonder what this old woman is doing with a camera crew following her, mirroring our own interest, but also highlighting the extreme disconnect between what a neighborhood believes about its inhabitants, and the facts of their past. In this way, Imamura takes what could be a simple oral history and makes it immediate, relevant intensely to the time in which it was made and philosophically for those of us viewing it now, nearly forty years later. The documentary form excels when it observes life as it is lived, and while Imamura’s camera can sometimes be seen as an intrusion, there are certain confrontations (in Outlaw-Matsu especially) that are too raw to be affected by anything.
A Man Vanishes, as purely-wrought a piece of cinema as one can imagine, as deeply investigative towards its subject as it is its very form, is rightfully the film for which Imamura’s documentary career will be remembered, but Icarus have done us a tremendous service in bringing all six of these films to one DVD package. They inform one another so well, sometimes in direct ways (the Soldier films and Outlaw-Matsu), and more resonantly through thematic and aesthetic bonds. Throughout these films we encounter not only the hidden stories, but the process of uncovering them – the research itself is as much the subject as what the titles would indicate. The films begin with Imamura giving the briefest sketch of their cultural context before diving right into the lives of his subjects as they currently stand (or, in the case of A Man Vanishes, are perceived to stand).
With the exception of A Man Vanishes, these films were shot for television, on what appears to be 16mm film, and Icarus have done wonderful work in transferring all six to DVD. Even without the high-def boost of Blu-ray, they maintain a beautiful, filmic look, sacrificing neither the grain nor the quality inherent to their medium. An accompanying booklet, featuring an essay by Tadao Sato, President of the Japanese Academy of Moving Images (which Imamura founded), and capsule introductions to the five bonus films, is a great primer, and really essential to viewing this work. No other special features are presented, but the wealth of material here (and the low cost of the set itself), making it more than worthy of examination. Heartily recommended.