Sunday, June 3, 2007
A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ipejji) 1926
(Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)
As my first entry , I am pleased to offer an appreciation of "A Page of Madness", an avant-garde Japanese silent film from 1926, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa.
Supposedly made without knowledge of the current silent cinema of the time, "A Page of Madness" (aka "A Crazy Page" or "A Page Out of Order") is a classic work of silent Japanese cinema that was way ahead of its time. The legend has it that the film was lost for 50 years (believed to have been destroyed in a fire) until a print was discovered in 1971. Kinugasa's film has often been unfairly compared to Robert Wiene's expressionist silent classic "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" but it is much more advanced in film language than the German 1919 film. For one, the film employs numerous techniques that were state of the art for that time: multiple exposures, distorted perspectives and camera angles, mysterious and bizarre visual juxtapositions.
Perhaps one of the most revolutionary aspects to this film is in its montage editing, somewhat reminiscent of Eisenstein's great early works (i.e., Potemkin and Strike). The film relies on rhythmical and rapid editing, similar to musical themes developing within a given sonata or symphonic work. Given the presentation of a rather disturbing story and its radical cinematic presentation, "A Page of Madness", while nearly breaking Kinugasa finacially (since he self-financed this film), the film was a huge hit in Japan. Kinugasa made a similar film, translated as "Crossroads" ("Jujiro") but it is unavailable in the West (even though it was the first Japanese film to be released in the West). As director, he had one of his greatest successes with "Gate of Hell" (1953).
"A Page of Madness" concerns an elderly man, formerly a sailor and now a janitor at an asylum whose wife is an inmate. His wife has drowned their infant child long ago, which triggered her breakdown into madness. Their teenage daughter visits and is trying to marry, she is unaware that her father is working at the asylum. Her visit triggers memories and flashbacks in the older man of happier times. In one of the films' saddest scenes, the janitor forces his wife to escape: he literally drags her from her cell, while she screams at being confronted by the stormy outside world, until she meekly crawls back to her cell and four walls. The janitor fantasizes about killing the young doctor at the asylum, dreams about happiness and finally is resigned to his fate, and his monotonous chores in the asylum.
This is a very hard film to write about. Besides the main story, the film contains no intertitles or dialogue cards. The film is very dream-like, as it shows the distorted views of the inmates. The first person we see in the film is a dancer:
After a lyrical, rhythmic montage of a storm and a car travelling through the storm, the camera settles on a costumed woman in a surrealistic night club scene (complete with large fuzzy ball with a zebra stripe), at a certain point there is a shot of her shadow flashing outside of a cell and the camera settles on the dancer in rags, dancing herself either to death or exhaustion. This is one of the most striking instances early in the film and later on, the same dancer causes a riot before her fellow patients:
The view of her becomes distorted, bending into abstract shapes and the viewer realizes that these distorted hallucinations are what the patients are seeing. There are a few instances of this in the film and it is visually striking.
After its rediscovery in 1971, the film played at the New York Film Festival, and occasionally resurfaces at various film fests and societies around the worl. As far as I know, the only copy available is a VHS copy from Facets Multimedia. Once seen, you will not easily forget it.