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A Man Vanishes

A Man Vanishes

By Arpad Lukacs • April 1st, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 2/5
Art Theatre Guild / Nikkatsu Corporation

Original release: July 8th, 1967
Running time: 130 minutes

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japan with English subtitles

Director: Shohei Imamura

Cast: Yoshie Hayakawa, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, Shôhei Imamura

Conventional wisdom dictates that documentary films seek the truth or aim to show the truth, or possibly both. Educational value is almost always an inherent and vital component in these films, in a vast array of subjects ranging from social issues, politics, science, nature and the environment.

The truth is of course an elusive and ambiguous concept that will never cease to generate heated debates in the public sphere. But what happens when a filmmaker simply stops caring about the truth while in the process of making a documentary?

Shohei Imamura’s 1967 film A Man Vanishes is a strangely fascinating hybrid of documentary and fiction. Imamura initially embarked on a television project about the many thousands of people who disappear without a trace in Japan every year. The series was to consist of 24 episodes revolving around a missing person in each episode. He then became so fascinated with the case of 32-year-old salesman, Oshima Tadashi, that he decided to make one feature length film based on his story and what he left behind.

A Man Vanishes

The film begins as a regular documentary with a sequence of interviews with Tadashi’s friends, family and co-workers, but progressively transforms into a narrative driven piece.

Much of the first half is a fascinating study on perception; we never actually meet Tadashi to give him a chance to tell us who he really is, we are to rely on the often contradictory accounts of those who knew him. We look at photographs of him and the void of his true personality is filled by mere descriptions of him. It is a discomforting thought that our true selves can be distorted to such an extent in our absence.

This already fascinating exploration wasn’t quite enough for the filmmakers as later Imamura and his film crew begin to take increasing control. Imamura himself becomes a part of the story, interacting with the people who were involved with Tadashi before he vanished. A brilliant – but I suspect fully fabricated – sequence in the film revolves around an oracle who gives her own ideas of where Tadashi really is.

A hardly perceivable few frames of her sitting in a dark room occasionally flashes before our eyes, with this mise-en-scène she is introduced as a stylish and intriguing character,in high contrast with the documentary style we’ve seen so far.

A Man Vanishes

The control the filmmakers exercise is not restricted to the film – it couldn’t possibly be – but extends to real people in real life. As interesting as I found the film I felt very uncomfortable by the inherent sadism in it. As Imamura takes increasing control, the focus shifts from Tadashi to his fiancé; Yoshie Hayakawa. In an interview at the Edinburgh Film Festival Tony Rayns did with Imamura, he makes it quite clear that Yoshie Hayakawa was the real reason he wanted to make the film in the first place:

“I soon guessed that Oshima had vanished because he wanted to get out of his obligation to marry her … She had every imaginable bad quality, none of us could really stand her … I wanted to understand why I found her so disturbing.” ¹

In the same interview, Imamura makes some further startling statements about the use of hidden cameras and the details of his arrangement with Yoshie and her involvement in the film:

“Yoshie Hayakawa gave her explicit consent to being filmed. She took leave from her job to be in the film and we paid her a salary. In other words she approached the project as a job and she took on the role of an actress in front of the camera. She used the camera as much as we used her as a subject. Of course there are serious ethical questions involved. Hayakawa didn’t know what the film’s outcome would be. But we behind the camera didn’t know where reality was going to lead us either. I’m not sure myself if the use of hidden cameras was justified and I have to admit that the finished film did hurt Hayakawa’s feelings. These are difficult areas and I have no glib answers. As a film maker though, I did what I had to do the see the film through to completion. I put the needs of the film first, I had no other choice, really.” ¹

Comparing Yoshie’s exploiting the camera with the filmmakers using her and implying that she deserved everything she was subjected to is just something I cannot agree with. While Imamura may or may not be right about Yoshie being a terrible person, he and his crew ended up looking much worse in my eyes. Yoshie may be self-centred, manipulative and even cruel at times, but she is alone and up against a group of professional filmmakers who have superior knowledge about what is happening and what this is all going to look like on the screen.

A Man Vanishes

As a result of the film, Yoshie’s relationship with her sister Sayo is completely ruined and only Yoshie knows what impact A Man Vanishes has had on other aspects of her life. The fabricated elements seem to focus on accommodating tension between people – especially between Yoshie and her sister, in a lengthy scene of accusations and arguments, only to have Imamura enter and give the order to disassemble the room around them to reveal a soundstage.

He says to Yoshi and the others that this is a work of fiction, but – if we are honest – it is not. People are actually hurting each other and A Man Vanishes – much like modern reality TV – accommodates this gleefully in an artificial environment.

My objections to the film come from a purely moral standpoint. I found A Man Vanishes very interesting, but I feel guilty when I think about the calculated and sophisticated bullying Yoshie was subjected to by a group of men. I couldn’t help but think that Shohei Imamura might have issues with the opposite sex; having found a woman he disliked, he decided to celebrate and magnify what he perceived as negative traits.


  • ¹ Quandt, J (1999) Shohei Imamura, Cinematheque Ontario

To introduce Yoshie as “Yoshie Hayakawa aka The Rat”, and repeatedly refer to her as such even in her presence, is simply outrageous no matter how good this film might be. Yoshie’s final words in the film sum up A Man Vanishes really well:

“I feel empty. Nothing’s been gained. I’ve come to realise that I suffered for nothing.”
Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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