The earthiest of Japanese New Wave directors, Shohei Imamura goes fascinatingly meta in A Man Vanishes, an ambiguous 1967 hybrid of investigative tract and ruminative experiment. Introduced in a cavernous office filled with rows of files and desks, a clerk goes through his notes on Tadashi Oshima, a plastics salesman who's been missing for two years, and spits out a barrage of data: date of birth, height, weight, social status, distinguishing features, and so forth. Every bit of information is meant to help elucidate the man's disappearance, and yet this early sequence achieves the opposite effect, suggesting instead that it's impossible to pin down a life even with all the records and numbers in the world.
"Where can anyone missing be in such a small country," the clerk wonders to Oshima's fiancée, Yoshie Hayakawa, who's following a young researcher (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) in a series of inquisitive interviews with her lover's family and friends. That Hayakawa is nominally "playing" herself in a study of a real-life missing-person case headed by an actor (Tsuyuguchi starred in Imamura's The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder) is the first but not last sign of a filmmaker upending the assumptions of "realism" inherent in the documentary genre.
Originally meant as a succession of TV reports on the high number of cases involving people inexplicably—and, often, deliberately—disappearing in 1960s Japan, the film adopts the façade of cinema vérité as the fiancée and the investigator travel from city to city to talk with various witnesses and different sides of the "timid" Oshima—his drinking, his embezzlement at work, his romances with multiple women—emerge. The visual style is rough-hewn, with grainy close-ups and abrupt zooms giving each encounter the impression of messy actuality. As the film progresses, however, Imamura increasingly subverts that impression with elements both subtle and obvious, ranging from shock cuts to a starkly composed shot of a single, ominous figure kneeling in a darkened chamber, to sarcastic asides from the filming crew trailing the two protagonists: "This is like a mystery film. It's a bit too dramatic."
Even more telling is the way both Hayakawa and Imamura appear to lose interest in their own subject. Over the course of the film, she develops a crush on Tsuyuguchi—and, as one of the crew members suggests, by becoming a more accomplished, more manipulative "actress"—while the filmmaker crumbles the project's grayish documentary surfaces by emphasizing the camera's presence as an obfuscating rather than illuminating eye. The idea of "truth" becomes no less slippery here than in Rashomon; not for nothing does a visit to a baleful medium bring to mind the cackling-witch séance from that Kurosawa classic.
Its purposefully out-of-synch images and sounds lending it a churning, discordant quality, A Man Vanishes brims with Imamura motifs. The restraints of society and family on the individual, the contrasts between urban and rural communities, and irrational impulses all feature prominently. Hayakawa herself is a typical Imamura heroine, perhaps more dour than his previous force-of-nature women (reportedly, the filmmaker both disliked and was fascinated by this watchful, unsmiling figure), and yet never less than tenacious in her emotional pursuit. After traipsing through a haze of rumor and innuendo, Imamura introduces the prospect of a murder mystery only to slyly snatch it away: Following an extended scene in which Hayakawa questions her failed-geisha sister about killing Oshima, the walls of the teahouse where they've been slinging accusations for the past 20 minutes are torn down to reveal a bustling soundstage.
Once their "endless argument" moves outdoors and passersby on the street are asked about their opinion, Imamura steps in front of the camera to expose the stylization behind this supposed documentary. ("So are we just wasting time," asks one peeved interviewee.) An existential essay on elusiveness of identity, a self-debunking bit of directorial mischief, a vertiginous travesty of a procedural, and an influential merging of life and fiction (Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary and Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up carry its DNA), A Man Vanishes envisions life as a tangle of subjectively staged "dramas," each complementing and contradicting the other.