If you’re lucky, you’re reading this email or write-up from the comfort and privacy of your own home, wearing whatever you damn well please, snacking however you see fit. But let’s be realistic: the more likely scenario for you—and our countless other readers—is that you’re reading this at work, between boring tasks designed to keep you occupied and out of trouble. Resist the urge to abandon this monotony for a new, stranger shore: after you punch the clock, make time for a rare screening of Shohei Imamura’s post-modern docudrama A Man Vanishes.
When A Man Vanishes was released, in 1968, Japan was experiencing a “runaway” phenomenon: one statistic, cited at the end of this film, clocked the annual number of missing persons at 91,000. Men and women with families, jobs, and obligations both public and private would disappear without a trace. A lack of probable suspects, or a runaway’s unknown motives, meant that many of these cases simply fizzled out. After a brief preamble establishing some tenuous connection to a local police department, Imamura and Co. set out to solve the disappearance of Oshima, a 30-year-old plastics salesman. The “wimpy” salaryman, with a long history of embezzlement and heavy-drinking, ditched his fiancée at the altar four years prior, but this sob story is merely a jumping off point to longer, rockier journey.
Their search, with jilted fiancée in tow, takes the filmmakers—and their audience—from the slums of Tokyo to country inns and posh households. Wherever they travel, old colleagues and ex-girlfriends reiterate what little we know about the missing: he was a heavy drinker, he was bad with money, popular with women, and so forth. Not content to give up the chase, Imamura and his crew dig deeper into their quarry’s whereabouts, backtracking and retreating until conventional theorizing and methodology begin to lose their shape entirely. Every breakthrough leads to a tangent, and countless tangents turn into dead ends: what may have happened, and what is actually happening, don’t always sync up. Or, if they do, it’s a hair too convenient for comfort.