I watched The Man Without A Map (1968), the film version of The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe. Abe wrote the screenplay; the variations in the plot compared to the novel are minor and unimportant. We start straight away in the cafe and skip the first chapter where the detective visits the wife of the missing man, as we go there again later anyway. The initial report commissioning the investigation is read in a quick voiceover after the opening credits.
We start with a black screen. Flames creep in from the sides.
It turns out we are watching a coloured pattern being burned, but the footage is in reverse.
We see an urban panorama, but in a unfocussed, distorted style, that resolves after we have heard the introduction and then we swoop down to the cafe.
This is Tokyo, and the action is in 1968, although we see or hear little of the background culture of the time. A young woman dances to pop music on the radio, and the streets are filled with advertising, but there are no directly topical, contemporary references. These characters wouldn’t seem to know any.
The private investigator has been called in to search for a middle manager at a fuel distributor, who has been missing for 6 months. The missing man’s wife is the official client, but her brother is soon to be encountered hanging around all the places the inquiry takes our man to.
There are many threads linking the missing man to possibly bad business. He may have had an arrangement with a city councillor who has interests in developments in a run-down area at the edge of the city. Someone might be involved in funny business with the fuel sales and maybe needing someone to fix the books. The brother-in-law also seems to have a connection to the city’s crime syndicate, but he insists his sister and her husband were just honest simple ordinary folk.
Things go very nasty when the brother-in-law turns up to collect his regular takings at a building site at night, and a full-scale riot ensues. Our detective gets away but not everyone survives.
Further sleaze and secrets come to the surface: the brother-in-law was involved in supplying high-class clients with young male prostitutes, while the missing man may have had a sideline taking nude photos of young models doing poses that were unsellable to respectable magazines. But none of this is getting us anywhere near the man himself or any kind of resolution. Our tired investigator spills it all in a meeting with the wife he is separated from.
DETECTIVE: Some man of little importance has gone missing. But somehow, everyone concerned is unwilling to cooperate. Even his wife is. They just want to know why he ran away. No one seems to care about his whereabouts.
WIFE: I think I understand.
DETECTIVE: You think so?
WIFE: Well, why did you leave home?
DETECTIVE: Because… I couldn’t find my place anymore.
WIFE: What a remarkable excuse.
He loses his job but still wants to solve the case, and this takes him in a final downward spiral of a chaotic night in which he gets beaten up, and then the world starts shifting in and out of psychedelic effects. He sleeps with his ex-client; he wanders at the edge of the world, he sees the missing man’s face hovering in the air of the city.
There is no way back to the old life and old job, but he seems to have found a way to carry on surviving in the city, perhaps like one of the drunks or derelicts he saw lying about earlier.
The instability of his perceptions is a theme throughout. “I neither trust you nor doubt you” he tells one partially-useful witness; there is a sequence in which he fantasises covering up the missing man’s wife in leaves, as she lies unconscious… but he loses control of the fantasy as her body seems to become invisible. The soundtrack starts with what seems like the scrambled voices of radio stations being rapidly switched between, and backwards music and interference before it resolves into a conventional film score. But this dissolves again into atonal rumbling when the images become unstable. In a few places this is similar to the empty streets and LSD comedown moods of some scenes in Herostratus. Car parks, cafes and street corners are all transient meeting places for briefly intersecting strangers in a strange city. One detail from the novel that is retained here: that phone boxes can be and are used as public toilets.