DAILY | Shôhei Imamura in NYC + LA

This summer, Icarus Films announced that it’d acquired North American rights to six documentaries made by Shôhei Imamura between 1967 and 1975, none of which have seen a theatrical release in the U.S. Until now. The series begins its tour at Anthology Film Archives in New York today and at Cinefamily in Los Angeles tomorrow—which is why Jonathan Kiefer‘s piece on Imamura is running in both the Voice and the LA Weekly: “Fiction twice earned him top honors at Cannes”—for The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1997)—”but he also made one of the early and essential fact-fiction hybrids… A Man Vanishes, from 1967, begins as a procedural missing-person report but inclines irrevocably toward self-conscious speculation. ‘It’s not necessarily that fiction is false and nonfiction is true,’ Imamura’s narration tells us.”

Had A Man Vanishes screened at Cannes this year, “it would have been hailed as a thrilling discovery,” suggests Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Seemingly banal in its conceit, wildly startling in its execution, it tracks a film crew that, like a detective squad, investigates what became of an ordinary man.” Tadashi Oshima—”a salesman, 32, with a medium build, square face and caterpillar brows—was reported missing in April 1965, having disappeared, ‘motive and cause unknown.’ The movie then jumps to a crowded street scene, and a male voice, presumably that of Imamura, asks, ‘Where can anyone missing be in such a small country?'”

Fernando F. Croce in Slant: “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.’ … 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.”

“A caustic satirist, Imamura has casually fucked with meta-aspects of cinema before,” notes David Fear in Time Out New York. “His take-no-prisoners comedy The Pornographers (1966) ends with the film faux-fracturing its own frame. But though the manner in which he rides the era’s questioning, pranky zeitgeist in the name of exploring identity—both Oshima’s and the movie’s—had little precedent in his back catalog, the result immediately feels completely of a piece with his piercing looks at humanity in extremis.”

Noting that Imamura’s narrative features are “rowdier than the certified classics of Ozu and Mizoguchi, but more formally elegant and genuinely perverse than the works of his fellow Japanese New Wave directors like Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki,” Mike Hale, back in the NYT, writes: “Anticipating by four decades today’s fondness for blurring the lines between documentary and drama—from the puzzle pieces of Abbas Kiarostami to the dodgy theatrics of CatfishA Man Vanishes is startlingly modern and, at 130 minutes, in some measure more fun to talk about than to watch. Having gotten it out of his system, Imamura proceeded to make a series of short, rough, vital, purely documentary films, primarily for Japanese television. In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Malaysia, In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers in Thailand, Outlaw-Matsu Returns Home and Karayuki-San, the Making of a Prostitute make up an informal tetralogy on a theme similar to that of A Man Vanishes: how and why people would slip away from the rigid embrace of Japanese society.”

Update, 11/16: Tony Rayns for Artforum: “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.”

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