A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippêji, 1926)

Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As regular readers here know, there’s not much I like better than finding lost films. Every recovered film fills a hole, however small, in history and provides insight into the artistic or documentary sensibilities of the filmmakers and the culture that influenced their creations. However, some discoveries are truly breathtaking, and the 1971 discovery of A Page of Madness by director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself while going through a warehouse is an extraordinarily valuable recovery. Japanese films from the silent era have one of the lowest survival rates of any national cinema, with only about 1 percent of an estimated 7,000 films still available for viewing in whole or in part. To compound the importance of this discovery, not only is the film silent, but it is also an experimental film, a subset of both silent and sound films that has an even lower survival rate.

Kinugasa, a former actor specializing in female parts, belonged to a group of avant-garde artists called the Shinkankaku-ha (School of New Perceptions). Like the German Expressionists also working at this time, the Shinkankaku-ha attempted to develop mood and subjective experiences through the manipulation of images rather than through traditional narration. Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner in Literature who supplied the story and part of the screenplay for the film, had seen Robert Wiene’s classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). He described that film’s experimental effects to Kinugasa, and these descriptions informed Kinugasa’s approach to telling the story of a janitor who works in the mental asylum in which his wife is incarcerated for trying to drown their baby.

The film offers what could have been a clichéd opening of suspense, a scene of a dark and stormy night. However, this storm is unlike anything I’ve seen since the Epstein/Buñuel silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Sheets of rain slant in a skewed camera angle, stylized lightning looking a bit like Japanese calligraphy splitting the sky. A goddess-like creature dancing in front of a spinning sphere interrupts the elemental chaos. The image melds with a young woman (Eiko Minami) in tatters dancing in a cement-block cell, her imaginings of herself as an elegant priestess intercutting with her compulsive movements, unable to stop until she has danced herself bloody.

A stooped and aged janitor (Masuo Inoue) moves down the aisle of the cell block of women both restless and prostrate. He registers nothing until he reaches the cell that contains his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa). She stares blankly, madness alive in her eyes, even as he tries to reach into her mind and reawaken her memories of their marriage. Instead, we see a young woman in traditional garb carrying a baby to the edge of a pond and being pulled back as she starts to lower the infant into the water. Water is an important image in this film, a reference to the unconscious from which these dark and chaotic images emerge.

The daughter (Ayako Iijima) she tried to drown has grown to young womanhood and comes to visit her parents at the asylum to tell them of her engagement. Footage of the daughter and her fiancé appears to be missing, and I mistook her for the janitor’s memory of his wife as a young woman. Yet, this mistake still seems to resonate in the film, as the janitor is haunted by his memories and seems to be losing his grip on reality through constant contact with the insanity around him. A riot in the asylum occurs when the segregated male inmates pour into the women’s lock-up as they yelp in a frenzy over the dancing woman. Grotesque faces assault the screen and linger in the janitor’s mind as he imagines the men posing a danger to his wife—an allusion to his own mistreatment of her before she went mad.

A particularly effective scene has the janitor imagine that he passes out masks from the Japanese Noh theatre to the inmates so they can assume identities to replace the ones that have gone to pieces; donning the masks brings them a calming happiness they cannot find within themselves. When the janitor imagines that he places a mask of a lovely woman over his wife’s face and dons one of a wise man himself, we see him remembering what he feels for his wife and his desire to have his affection returned. Masks are always a bit eerie in film, and to see the collection of pale, immovable faces is to force a comparison to the largely blank, immovable face of the janitor’s wife. It is also a reminder that the janitor’s face, largely frozen in a half grimace, masks the tormented mind Kinugasa makes visible only to the audience watching the film.

Kinugasa engenders disorientation in the audience with the use of superimposed images, skewed camera angles, and quick-cut montages that telescope the chaos of the riot, for example, as well as the sharp contrast between the janitor’s imagination and the reality of his world. For example, he sees one bearded inmate menacing him and his wife, but a cut shows the janitor reclining on his bed as this same inmate, meek and harmless, is escorted past his door. Which is real? It doesn’t really matter. We understand that for the janitor, his chosen life and inner pain will forever keep “real” and “normal” a distant land.

The sense of confusion is quite extreme for the audience, particularly since the film has no intertitles. As was the practice in Japan, this film would have had a benshi narrate the story, interpreting the actions of the characters almost like an additional member of the cast. It would be fascinating to see the film with a benshi, but the powerful imagery and committed performances of the actors, particularly Inoue, communicate volumes. The film score used for the print from the George Eastman House uses atmospheric sound effects and a Japanese flute that I felt enhanced the haunted and alienated quality of the film.

A Page of Madness is an incredible achievement of Japanese cinema and a precious find for all cinephiles and scholars. It is also available for free viewing on YouTube.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    25th/06/2012 to 9:15 am

    I managed to see this theatrically twice. Deserving of something much better than availability on Youtube, although that is better than not being available at all.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/06/2012 to 5:24 pm

    Without a doubt. I saw it on TCM, but I would love to see this on the big screen with a benshi, if possible.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    25th/06/2012 to 11:24 pm

    Saw it on TCM also and was blown away. It’s an incredible achievement of world cinema and a summit of silent cinema in particular. I can’t help feeling a benshi would spoil it but would be amused to hear one say, “Your guess is as good as mine on that one, folks.” In all seriousness, I’d expect a benshi to contribute something more in keeping with the material than mere play-by-play, but I suppose I’ll never know for sure.

  • James Russell spoke:
    25th/06/2012 to 11:38 pm

    I wonder about the benshi. Given that the admitted handful of Japanese silents I’ve seen (almost all early Ozus) have intertitles and would presumably have had benshi narration as well, I wonder if Kinugasa meant for his film without intertitles to not have narration either. At this remove I don’t suppose there’s any way of confirming one way or the other, though.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/06/2012 to 9:11 am

    Interesting thoughts on the benshi. I actually saw one perform for Ozu’s I Was Born, But…. Unfortunately, the film kept breaking, so it was not an ideal situation. Nonetheless, it was not really a synopsis. She provided emotion as well, yelling and laughing, and I felt she added a lot.

    With this film, I know it’s been conjectured that Kinugasa was styling it after The Last Laugh, but it’s hard for me on short notice to find out whether Kinugasa actually saw any German Expressionist films. There may have been a source through Russia at the time, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. I’m not even sure the story about Caligari is true, but I did run into it more often.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    26th/06/2012 to 7:26 pm

    Yes the discovery of this film by the director himself in 1971 was a monumental. I look forward to gazing on at a remastered print sometime in the near future, but for now it’s a rough approximation of what this stylish avante garde film offered to audiences in the mid-20’s by the same man who later won the Palme d’Or for GATE OF HELL (another film masterfully review at FERDY-ON-FILMS) a short while back. Yes, Japanese cinema is the most infamous for a poor survival rate of their earlier films, and at that their methods of preservation are lamentable. A number of early Ozus for example are in disrepair. In any event, great to see the spotlight on this masterpiece, and kudos on a terrific essay!

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