In the 1960s, filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara teamed up with novelist and screenwriter Kôbô Abe, cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa and composer Tôru Takemitsu and delivered a trilogy of some of the greatest films ever. "Pitfall" (1962), "Woman in the Dunes" (1964) and "The Face of Another" (1966) were all absolute masterpieces from the much revered Japanese New Wave. Each film was a work of staggering genius, with extraordinary stories revolving around existential themes, and boasted of some of the finest audiovisual atmospherics in cinema.
"The Man Without a Map" (1968) is the final film from the Teshigahara-Abe collaboration and all except cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa are part of this venture, with Segawa being replaced by Akira Uehara. The moodiness of the earlier three films is retained, except this time, the film is shot in colour and in the anamorphic widescreen format.
The opening credits with psychedelic colours and images of burning paper, along with a hypnotically disorienting score that transforms into what appears to be a switching of radio channels, until one piece of music is settled upon, sets the stage for exactly the kind of mystifying experience the film turns out to be. The process of mystification doesn't begin until much later though. A man by the name of Nimuro Hiroshi goes missing. It is close to six months and there is absolutely no news about his whereabouts. Nimuro's wife (Etsuko Ichihara) hires a gruff looking detective (Shintarô Katsu) from an agency to investigate the disappearance.
The investigation is plagued with dead ends, as the handful of clues fail to give any specific direction. The mystery deepens and seems to diverge rather than converge to a definite solution. Certain characters related to Nimuro come and go, make their presence felt, but provide absolutely nothing of value. Although obsessed with finding an answer, very soon the futility of the case starts to affect the detective's psyche and he begins to lose touch with reality.
The screenplay of "The Man without a Map" is a very perplexing one. On the surface it appears to be a hard-boiled detective fiction with a missing persons case at its center. However, these appearances are but only superficial, and what lies at the core of the film are much larger, metaphysical themes of alienation and existential crisis; of a single man's identity and the loss of it in a greater modern universe. The frame in the very beginning shows a strangely coloured bird's eye view of Tokyo. There's a yellowish hue to the shot and a discordant score plays in the background as a voiceover more or less narrates the central plot of the disappearance. Now in this view, Tokyo initially resembles the layout of a computer chip.
And then as normal colours appear, the city appears more like a maze. The choice of such angles and colours for these images are very relevant in the context of the film's themes. The emphasis is on how a single individual is dwarfed in comparison to a large city, and its fast-paced life and technological advances, leading to an inherent social indifference. The detective fiction is a mere facade then, for the message that clearly seems to be embedded within the film is how the individuality of a single person is lost in a sea of myriad souls striving to establish their own identity, and some even end up getting crushed in the process (an idea explored in the film's final, telling scene). In a way, it leads to the individual literally going missing!
The protagonist of this strange story, finds himself pursuing a man who vanishes without rhyme or reason. His bosses won't talk much, neither will his associates. Those who do talk, seem to have problems of their own, and provide information that really doesn't amount to much. Could it be that all these individuals related to Nimuro are all succumbing to a crisis and seeking to give some kind of meaning or usefulness to their lives? The associate who claims to have some knowledge of Nimuro's rather embarrassing activities seems to be one such kind whose clues offer nothing much of substance, yet gives the man some sense of purpose.
The title of the film is very peculiar as well. There is really no mention of a map except in one scene in which the detective asks Nimuro's associate to point out in the map where he was supposed to have met him last. So who really is the man without a map? It is safe to assume given the film's themes that the map signifies meaning, or direction. And hence, the detective is perhaps following the footsteps of Nimuro himself, and losing himself, gradually diminishing as an individual and struggling to make sense of the mystery at hand and also his own existence.
To depict the lack of a clear connection between individuals, or a general sense of detachment, there is an extensive use of faint glass reflections and distorted images of characters. Sometimes the characters are blurred or out of focus, at other times, they are grotesque reflections of themselves. It is possible that these blurs and distortions also aim at hinting that there is something sinister about these individuals or they aren't what they seem to portray to the detective. Part of the visual brilliance of the film comes from the sudden colour shifts. In some scenes the colours shift to saturated hues of vivid red, purple, yellow and orange. The dissonant, unsettling score, clubbed with some surreal, dream-like imagery lend the kind of atmosphere that you would expect from Teshigahara.
In fact, one wishes there was more of such hallucinatory imagery, and a certain, deeper kind of abstractness to the narrative that would enhance the aura of the film as a psychological drama that it actually aspires to be. There is no question that the film has its gloomy, enigmatic quality and it plays out at an aptly controlled pace. Shintarô Katsu's able performance holds things together as well. Only the film plays out more like a straightforward mystery rather than a profound examination of the protagonist's gradually disintegrating psyche. Nevertheless, Teshigahara's and Abe's final film together still delivers as a solid noir, and a visually brilliant, well-crafted psychological drama.