While Shohei Imamura may not be a forgotten figure in the history of Japanese cinema, his docudrama A Man Vanishes (67) only received its U.S. theatrical release last November, while his other documentaries remain little known. Icarus Films’ collection of his nonfiction work should help to remedy this.
The centerpiece is A Man Vanishes, which doesn’t fit neatly into the documentary genre—it’s a precursor to better-known mixtures of reality and fiction like Welles’s F for Fake and Kiarostami’s Close-Up. Investigating the disappearance of businessman Tadashi, Imamura begins by interviewing the man’s fiancée, Yoshie. What follows is an increasingly vertiginous collision of fiction and documentary, including blatantly staged scenes and on-camera appearances by the director himself. The film climaxes with the stunning demolition of a constructed set and winds up suggesting that neither documentary nor fiction can tell the whole truth. Karayuki-San, The Making of a Prostitute (75, pictured) focuses on an elderly woman forced into prostitution around 1919, a real-life equivalent of the resilient heroines of fictional Imamura films like The Insect Woman (63) or Intentions of Murder (64). She expresses neither self-pity, anger, nor bitterness about her hard life.
Unlike Imamura’s narrative films, the four shorts in this set venture beyond Japan. The Pirates of Bubuan (72) slowly but surely dismantles the myths about a poor Filipino tribe’s violence and laziness. The weakest film in this set, In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand (71), depicts three Japanese expats during a long night of drinking, and suffers from the fact that it seems to have been hurriedly shot in about 12 hours. Its sibling, In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia (71), zeroes in on a Japanese convert to Islam, now living in Malaysia, and feels far more focused. Outlaw-Matsu Returns Home (73) depicts the angry homecoming of one of the men from Thailand, as he confronts familial and political alienation. While A Man Vanishes towers above the rest of the films in the collection, all of them contribute to fleshing out a clearer sense of Imamura’s body of work.