Mockumentaries have hit a rich vein of late, with the is-she-or-isn’t-she flirtation with truth and lies, the fact, fiction or faction of I Am Still Here, Cat Fish and Exit through the Gift Shop; the pranking of Borat and Bruno and the revival of the found footage horror genre of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Much of this can be traced to the nefarious activities of Endemol, and their swinish exploitation of reality to serve up Reality(TM), the human sacrifice (vote who to eliminate!), the pseudo-religious, cod-psychology rituals of the confessional and the gutting of any sense of distinction between the private and the public. Add to this our own starring in social networking sites and the fact that the political event of the decade resembled a set piece from a tent pole Hollywood movie but filmed in a way that anticipated Cloverfield. Jean Baudrillard couldn’t have written a better script for the noughties, the decade that made navel-gazing an internationally popular sport and gave us Saddam Hussein’s execution filmed on a camera phone and uploaded to YouTube.
It perhaps will come as a surprise then that over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay revealing with cunning wit precisely these concerns and anticipating the traps of reality for filmmakers. In 1965, a plastic salesman, Tadashi Oshima, goes missing. There are many possible motives - guilt over an embezzlement at work, which was discovered and probably stymied his chances of promotion, the impending marriage to an overbearing fiancée. We are told that 90,000 Japanese men disappear every year, responding to social claustrophobia, work pressure and the watchful family. It is two years after the fact and a documentary crew, with the aid of Oshima’s fiancée - known as ‘the Rat’ - are on his trail. They try to reconstruct the events leading up to his disappearance, interviewing his family, his various girlfriends, his boss and workmates, and even a medium. We find out details of his life: he was a heavy drinker, successful with the ladies, used a lot of pomade on his hair. The crew often resort to hidden cameras and provocation of dubious ethical grounding. The pace of the film is insistent and driven, conversations and interviews overlap and fall out of synch with the images, still pictures are used and little black oblongs ostensibly preserve anonymity, but actually feel more like a stain of admitted guilt.
And yet for all the busyness and activity, Oshima is elusive. In fact, it is the very investigation itself - as indicated by the present tense of the title A Man Vanishes, not, as might be expected after two years have passed, ‘A Man Vanished’ - that erases his existence. He ceases to be a human being and becomes a missing person poster, an enigma, paradoxically flattened by the process of documentation. He now exists in Reality, and no longer reality.
The film begins to lose interest in him anyway and seems more concerned with revealing and examining its own methodology. The documentary makers meet like a secret cabal, a paranoiac’s worst nightmare. Their apparent objectivity is compromised by their obvious wish to manipulate and produce a good story. ‘It has to be more like an investigative film,’ the director (Imamura himself) mutters at one point. They use subtitles, not only to tell you who people are in relation to Oshima, but to pass on their own judgements. Why is Oshima’s fiancée known as the Rat? They become increasingly intrusive in the film as the investigation (like an investigation, but not actually an investigation) gets stuck on a hypothesis suggested in the interview with the medium. Was the Rat’s sister having an affair with Oshima? A tense dinner is arranged, which seems like one of those Big Brother moments when the contestants decide to have it out, and during which the sister (aka the Witch) is confronted with both the accusations and a witness (constantly referred to as the Fishmonger) who saw them together.
At this point, Imamura decisively intervenes, literally tearing the walls down and admitting the film to be a fiction, but the slipperiness of the construct and even the admission of fictionality doesn’t stop the film from its relentless pursuit of some larger meaning. This ‘meaning’ has completely erased the man of the title. In fact, if the man just turned up, the film would still go on searching for the ‘meaning’ that is only significant via its absence. It is no coincidence that the street argument that concludes the film (and which anticipates Jerry Springer’s spawn), as well as the argument at the dinner, hinges entirely on the veracity (or otherwise) of two mutually contradictory witnesses. Someone has to be lying for someone to be telling the truth. In fact, even Imamura’s confession that the film is a fiction is to some extent a lie. Oshima did exist and did disappear and the two sisters were real, though the Rat was paid a salary to appear in the film.
The intriguing sequel to this is the fact that Imamura went on to spend the next 10 years working exclusively on television documentaries. It’s almost as if A Man Vanishes represents a cautionary preface, an admission of the problematics before dedicating what was to be a significant chunk of his career to that strange and stained genre.