Sunday, November 11, 2012

Shôhei Imamura docu retrospective plays AFA; A MAN VANISHES gets one-week run

Is/was there a more interesting Japanese filmmaker with a more varied and ambitious output than Shôhei Imamura (1926-2006)? And TrustMovies is talking about only the man's narrative films -- which comprise all he had seen of his work until now, as -- thanks to Icarus Films, The Japan Foundation and Anthology Film Archives (AFA) -- the half dozen documen-taries made by Imamura (shown above) will have the chance to be seen and savored beginning this Thursday, November 15, including his first, A MAN VANISHES (Ningen jôhatsu) from 1967, which is receiving its U.S. premiere via a full week's run at AFA.

Imamura made only 24 films, including the six documentaries to be shown here, but what an output! At least two great films: Vengeance is Mine and The Ballad of Narayama, plus several more near-top-tier movies like The Eel, Dr. Akagi and my particular favorite, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.

And now we get the opportunity to view his documentaries. The entire schedule is shown below, but I'll concentrate here on A Man Vanishes -- a film made some 45 years ago that yet seems both as current and as stylishly au courant as any of the many hybrid docs we've seen over the past few years.

Each year in Japan, as elsewhere, many people disappear. Imamura investigates the disappearance of one of these, a relatively young salesman named Tadaski Oshima, who one day goes missing. The filmmaker tracks the disappearance via everything from police reports to friends, relatives, employers, co-workers and love interest(s).

As it goes along, the movie takes the shape of police procedural, psychological profile (and not just of the missing man), and portrait of the social culture of the time via the workplace, family, bars and other places of "relaxation." Imamura -- whose films exist as much to challenge us as to entertain us -- also does something in his documentary that I don't think had ever been tried prior to this (though it's been done countless times in recent years): staging certain scenes using the actual people involved to get closer to the truth of the matter.

The filmmaker even goes so far as to hire a kind of assistant (above, right, who in some ways resembles the missing man), and have him work closely with the man's girlfriend. Sure enough, "love" starts to blossom, though what love, memory, motive or truth -- to name a few of the usual suspects -- actually mean here is up for grabs. In turns out, for instance, that our missing guy had more than just this one girlfriend, and that he had also earlier embezzled from his company -- and may have done it again. His boss (below) seems happy to forgive him, however: Well, business is different in Japan -- at least, it was back in the good old days.

In one of the most striking scenes, a vital conversation about truth and lies is taking place between real people, and suddenly the camera moves up and back to reveal a movie set, and the director none too subtly reminds us of where we are and what we can expect from this "truth." Imamura also -- whether for reasons of protection from lawsuits or the simple gesture of decency toward individuals who do not want to be recognized -- masks certain faces with that oft-used (in the old days) black rectangle, below. (These days, the general populace, both here and abroad, seems so desirous of being seen and recognized, it is difficult to imagine anyone not going for his/her "money" shot.")

Pretty soon everything and everyone in the film, including some deep familial ties, are called into question, and we get the pièce de résistance: A highly charged conversation/argument in the street, below, about whether or not the girlfriend's sister was seen with the missing man.  At the end of this remarkable scene, one of the participants notes, "This 'truth' is beyond me." Amen.

I suspect you will hardly believe that a film such as this could have existed as far back as 1967, so contemporary does it seem in style, if not in the specifics of time and place. See it, if you have any interest in where the documentary form has been -- and where it is going. A Man Vanishes plays at AFA from this Thursday, November 15, through Sunday, November 18, at 6:30 nightly, and Monday, November 19, through Wednesday, November 21, at 8:45 nightly.

Below are the AFA descriptions of the other films 
in this series, all as yet unseen by me: 

An Icarus Films release
An Icarus Films release
In these two remarkable films, Imamura travels first to Malaysia and then to Thailand, to investigate the lives and experiences of those Japanese soldiers who, during World War II, chose to desert from the Japanese Army and remain in Southeast Asia.
 –Thursday, November 15 at 9:00, Saturday, November 17 at 9:00, and Monday, November 19 at 6:30.

KARAYUKI-SAN, THE MAKING OF A PROSTITUTE / KARAYUKI SAN 1975, 70 mins, 16mm. Print courtesy of the Japan Foundation. An Icarus Films release
A film about another kind of “unreturned soldier”, KARAYUKI-SAN finds Imamura traveling to Malaysia to interview Kikuyo Zendo, one of the countless Japanese women who were kidnapped or otherwise sold into sexual slavery in order to service the Japanese military in Southeast Asia. 74 years old at the time of filming, she offers a frank andharrowing testimony into her horrific wartime experiences, and the factors that have led her to choose exile over repatriation. “Perhaps the most brilliant and feeling of Imamura’s fine documentaries.” –Joan Mellen, The Waves at Genji's Door
 –Friday, November 16 at 9:00, Sunday, November 18 at 5:00, and Wednesday, November 21 at 7:00.

THE PIRATES OF BUBUAN / BUBUAN NO KAIZOKU 1972, 46 mins, digital video. An Icarus Films release
Remoteand impoverished islands in the Philippines are revealed to be the home of rival factions of pirates in this absorbing investigation into a little-known way of life.
OUTLAW-MATSU RETURNS HOME / MUHOMATSU KOKYO E KAERU 1973, 47 mins, digital video. An Icarus Films release
"In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers was about former soldiers of the Japanese army who chose not to return to Japanafter the war. … Two years later, I invited one of them to make his first return visit to Japan and documented it in OUTLAW-MATSU RETURNS HOME. During the filming, my subject Fujita asked me to buy him a cleaver so that he could kill his ‘vicious brother.’ I was shocked, and asked him to wait a day so that I could plan how to film the scene. By the next morning, to my relief, Fujita had calmed down and changed his mind about killing his brother. But I couldn’t have had a sharper insight into the ethical questions provoked by this kind of documentary film-making.” –Shôhei Imamura
 –Saturday, November 17 at 4:15, Sunday, November 18 at 9:00, and Tuesday, November 20 at 6:30.

Find out more about Anthology Film Archives by clicking here; for directions on how to reach AFA, click here.

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