THE GREAT IMAMURA SHÔHEI (1926–2006) effected a tactical withdrawal from the film industry at the end of the 1960s. The first sign that he wanted out had come several years earlier, in 1965, when he quit the major Nikkatsu and began producing his movies through his own independent company. The second title from Imamura Productions was Ningen Johatsu (A Man Vanishes, 1967) and it was a real mold breaker, not least because he persuaded a coalition of independent movie theaters in Tokyo and other cities to help pay for it. The film had no obvious aesthetic precedent in Japan or anywhere else. It presents itself as a piece of investigative journalism, a documentary reportage, but the lines of inquiry turn into a garden of forking paths and the film ends up questioning its own veracity. The Godardian dictum that cinema is truth at twenty-four frames per second doesn’t hold much weight here.
One feature film later, Imamura abandoned fiction and commercial distribution altogether. He once told me that his retreat from the mainstream was provoked by the filming of Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (Profound Desires of the Gods, 1968). Shooting in indolent, tropical Okinawa, he’d become so laid-back that he lost track of time and budget. But his actors and crew rebelled against the protracted shoot, and the whole experience became an unhappy one. This was probably not the whole truth; the fact that he’d already made A Man Vanishes proves that he was already finding the chore of constructing narratives too constraining. Whatever the case, between 1969 and 1979 he shot nothing but documentaries and quasi documentaries. The final phase of his career, of course, brought him two Palmes d’Or in Cannes and secured his lasting reputation.
All of Imamura’s documentaries focus on the aftermath of the Pacific War—the period when he got through his college years in the rubble of Tokyo by dabbling in student theater and hanging out with small-time yakuza, hookers, occupation-force GIs, and black marketeers. His subsequent cynicism about Japan’s former imperial ambitions (not to mention the “economic miracle” of the 1960s) fueled an interest in casualties of the war—the Japanese soldiers and “comfort women” who had chosen to stay in Southeast Asia rather than return to Japan after the defeat. Imamura himself took what we’d now think of as the Michael Moore role: an on-screen traveler-interviewer, less pudgy and sure of himself than Moore, but certainly no less intrepid.
In Malaysia he encountered the demure but destitute seventy-four-year-old Zendo Kikuyo, who was tricked into selling herself into sexual slavery when she was a young woman; she was from Japan’s most despised caste and now feels no connection with the “motherland” that exploited her youthful naïveté. In Thailand he encountered the embittered ex-soldier Fujita Matsuyoshi, nicknamed “Matsu the Untamed” after a movie hero, who similarly felt abandoned and rejected by the country that had sent him to war. From the many women and men he met, Imamura picked these two for invitations to revisit their birthplaces in Japan and documented their trips in Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute (1975) and Outlaw-Matsu Returns Home (1973). As he follows them around, it becomes obvious that Imamura is less interested in their inner feelings than in using them as living indictments of Japan’s postwar materialism.
Comparable ambiguities arise in A Man Vanishes, the film that launched Imamura down this path. The film ostensibly sets out to investigate the phenomenon of individuals who simply disappear from their homes, jobs, and social circles, specifically by helping a woman named Hayakawa to track down her missing fiancé. Imamura soon twigs that the missing man absconded precisely to get away from Hayakawa, a virtual catalogue of bad character traits, but goes on filming (sometimes with a hidden camera) to observe her growing crush on Tsuyuguchi, the actor he has hired to pose as a professional investigator. It transpires that Hayakawa is also interested in Imamura himself, and so the director finally collapses the project in on itself by revealing the elements of fiction he has used to his unsuspecting protagonist. Imamura made the film without access to the lightweight cameras and sound recorders and fast film stocks pioneered by Richard Leacock and his associates in New York in the mid-’60s, and the result is as astonishing as it is rough-and-ready. Imamura’s genius in this period was to marry his political critique of Japanese society with his conceptual and technical innovations. He found himself rethinking the ontology of the film image itself.
Anthology Film Archives is hosting a weeklong theatrical engagement and retrospective of A Man Vanishes and documentaries by Shôhei Imamura from Thursday, November 15–Wednesday, November 21.