“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra
DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa
FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa
PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.
- A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
- Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
- Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
- Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
- Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
- Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
- The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam; asylum masquerade
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.
Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)
COMMENTS: There’s little question that A Page of Madness is more confusing to today’s viewers than it would have been to its contemporary audience. That’s partly because it’s likely that some footage that would have provided additional context is missing; but mostly, the extra disorientation comes from of the absence of the benshi, the live narrator who would add commentary to, and speak lines of dialogue for, Japanese silent films. Complicating things further, Teinosuke Kinugasa decided to make A Page of Madness without any explanatory intertitles, in imitation of ‘s The Last Laugh. Ironically, that absence of explication makes the deliberately weird and disorienting Madness—which, along with Germany’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, was one of the earliest attempts at visualizing insanity in the medium of film—even weirder and more disorienting. Though not quite what was originally intended, the benshi-less experience makes for a purer expression of Kinugasa’s Madness. For this review, I am going to serve as your own personal literary version of a benshi, analyzing the film in a much more linear fashion than we usually do to help you make sense of it. If you prefer to enter the labyrinth of Madness unescorted, to be surprised and at times confused (maybe even frightened) by its denizens, you may want to watch the film first, and return to this guide later. There may be “spoilers” in this review, although Madness, which relies more on imagery than plot, is not a film that’s easily spoiled by mere words.
A Page of Madness begins with a rush of jumbled images that would have been shockingly unfamiliar at the time audiences of the period: a sequence of abstract shots of rain and flowing water, a car arriving in a storm, a downpour superimposed over barred windows so that it appears to be raining inside. As the series progresses each shot is held for a shorter period in an editing crescendo. Today, we would assume this type of montage was inspired by Claire Lescot’s parlor. The following scene reveals this to be a fantasy; the woman is actually prancing around in a tattered dress in a bare cell. Outside of the neighboring cell, a gentle-faced man, whom we later learn is the asylum janitor, gazes sadly at a sleeping woman, whom we infer is his now-mad wife. She wakes and extends her hands to him; he grabs them, but she is only offering him a button she holds in the palm of her hand. We see, from her perspective, that she thinks she is holding a glass bauble, and when she sees the man’s face it appears as a funhouse mirror image that makes her laugh. The man sees scenes in flashback: a crying baby, a splash in a pool of water, then the woman holding the baby, then another woman restraining her. The memories torment him. He leaves his vigil.. The introduction resolves into a shot of a Japanese woman in an Art Deco headdress dancing in front of a giant, striped, spinning ball that might have been on loan from
The next day a younger woman appears at the gates of the asylum. She asks to see the patient, over the janitor’s objections, but the madwoman recognizes her daughter no more than her husband. The younger woman leaves, and we then turn to the hospital’s doctor making his rounds. We now see the other inmates: the camera spins, as if on a pivot, from one to another as they lie comatose, lost in the own interior worlds, eyes rolled back, laughing at nothing. A woman wanders from the group and is herded back by a team of nurses. The doctor examines the custodian’s wife but gets no meaningful response. She is still obsessed with the button.
The next day, the daughter visits the father again. As they walk along the path they pass the mother, staring into the distance at the horizon. We see her subjective, distorted view of the landscape. A bearded man rushes at the janitor; orderlies seize him. His wife does not even notice. The wife is escorted back to her cell but pauses to watch her neighbor, still dancing. We again see the dancer through her eyes, as a whirling, abstract blob, another contorted refraction. The hallucination delights her and she giggle and claps, drawing the attention of other inmates, who crowd around the dancer’s cell. Eventually all the prime spots are taken up by the male patients, who grow leering expressions as they watch the dancer twirl. They grow so excited that the scene turns into a riot when the guards try to guide them back to their cells. In the ensuing melee, the bearded maniac again assaults the janitor, choking him, while his wife watches the scene with little expression.
Later, after the riot has been quelled, we see the custodian tending to his pet canaries in a birdcage. A parade arrives outside the asylum gate. He watches it through the window. He goes into the crowd and visits a wagon where men are handing out free fortune cookies, and laughs gleefully at his fortune. But the next shot shows him wistfully staring out the window, just as we left him; his visit to the carnival was only a fantasy.
Later, he walks into his wife’s cell while she is eating her evening meal. He dangles a key in front of her, suggesting she might escape with him, but the woman is solely interested in the cookies he has brought with him. He is called away to haul away the dirty dishes. That evening, his daughter visits again, and shows him a ring. She is engaged to be married. He is distressed, and images of his wife’s black face and the bearded madman flash before his eyes. He is afraid that the insanity is hereditary and begs her not to get married, but his daughter leaves him in tears, intent on going ahead with her marriage.
While the wife is dreaming of a lake we have seen often before, the janitor enters her cell. He tries to coax her to leave, but she cowers in the corner. He drags her limp body outside the cell; we see her screaming in a brief profile shot, although in the two-shot with him she shows no expression. A dog howls outside; she struggles at the sound, collapses, and the discouraged janitor allows her to crawl back to her cell, locking it behind her. As he is returning to his room he drops the key, which is found by the doctor during his rounds.
Back in his room, the janitor begins to fantasize. He is again escaping with his wife; the grinning madmen watch them leave from behind their barred cells. The doctor catches the pair and accosts the husband while the wife is shepherded away by nurses. The custodian battles with the doctor and eventually beats the younger man unconscious with his broom (which has appeared from nowhere). He sees a vision of his daughter held hostage by a madman, and then all the figures fade away into ghosts. Images of bars are superimposed on his face; he is a prisoner of his tragic circumstances. He remembers a scene where he is struggling with his wife while police vans are arriving; it is presumably the night she was taken away. He is beating her in anger at whatever she has done.
Now day breaks, and the janitor is holding his head in his hands, wracked with guilt and a sense of defeat. His nightmare, though not his dream, is over. We see a chorus of three madmen beating imaginary drums. The janitor takes a series of smiling Noh masks from a basket and places one on each of the drummers. (The use of traditional Noh masks signals to the audience that this is high drama, not a shinpa, or vulgar melodrama). He then goes to a corner where his wife lies in the middle of a huddled mass of female patients and again places a mask on each patient. Lastly, he places a bearded mask on himself. The woman in the cell dances, also masked, and all of the assembled nod their Noh heads with the painted smiles in rhythm to the imaginary music.
Suddenly, the janitor is mopping the floor again. The bearded madman who had attacked him passes by, escorted by the doctor, and nods at him respectfully. The janitor resumes mopping.
Another benshi would tell you that the man was a sailor and that his wife went insane and drowned their child while he was away in distant lands, and that he now believes himself responsible for her condition. I will not do so, because there is only a single shot of the window of the Indian Pacific Steamship Company to suggest a vocation as a sailor. Most of this backstory comes from outside sources. Whether the janitor is motivated by guilt or merely by love for his wife, the end result is the same. Because of the shifting timelines and the fact that the film relies on the audience to distinguish fact from fantasy, the relatively simple outline above is not easy for audiences to decipher, particularly those with no experience in parsing abstracted narratives. For example, it would be easy to misconstrue the janitor’s second escape attempt, which is part of his third act fantasy, as a continuation of his first aborted attempt. The film’s visual field is also extremely complicated, with abstract shots, seemingly unrelated images appearing spottily in the course of the narrative, and many overlapping images that suggest overlapping layers of reality. The result is maddening, but serves the intended purpose: to create an emotional reality more compelling than the details of the literal story alone would create. The janitor is as almost as mad as his wife, and more tragic: free of life’s burdens, she is blessed to live the rest of her days in an eternal fantasy, while he is left alone to bear the reality of the family’s disintegration.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…there’s no amount of buckling up that can prepare a well-versed silent cinephile for the utter unheralded weirdness of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji).”–Michael Atkinson, Silentfilm.org (2017 screening)
“…the spectators, as the inmates of the asylum, lose track of reality and are carried on through the story, desperately trying to pick up the unhelpful threads of the formerly announced plot. But Kinugasa’s technical and artistic mastery is enough to make A Page of Madness a masterpiece of Japanese and, for that matter, world avant-garde cinema…”–Peter Kapitaniak, Electric Sheep (2017 screening)
IMDB LINK: A Page of Madness (1926)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
“A Page of Madness:” Understanding a Work in its Time – 16 page essay from expert Aaron Gerow (who literally wrote the book on A Page of Madness)
A Page of Madness slide show – Slide show created and shown at the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Midnight Eye feature: A Page of Madness – The Japanese cinema site “Midnight Eye” has an overview of the film, including a detailed interview with Swiss film expert Mariann Lewinsky
Kurutta Ippeiji (1926) – Chris Fujiwara writes up the film for Turner Classic Movies
A Page of Madness: The Lost, Avant Garde Masterpiece from the Early Days of Japanese Cinema (1926) – Brief background essay on the film at Open Culture
A Page of Madness (Film) – TVTropes’ Page of Madness page
Deciphering ‘A Page of Madness’ – A “Japan Times” review of Aaron Gerow’s book (see Bibliography below) yields some additional tidbits about the film
A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan – A 2009 monograph by Aaron Gerow, a professor of Japanese cinema at Yale
HOME VIDEO INFO: As a public domain film, you would think that there would be a lot of competition in the marketplace, but Madness is such a specialty item that Flicker Alley/Blackhawk Films manufactured-on-demand Blu-ray (buy) is your only serious option. The film looks as good as it’s ever likely to look, and comes with an exotic score from silent specialists the Alloy Orchestra—another excellent outing from this ensemble that provides the perfect deranged accompaniment to the bizarre visuals. Two experts, a psychoanalyst and a Japanese film historian, provide insight on the film for half an hour on a 1989 New York City PBS broadcast in the main supplement. Madness is clearly the main attraction here, but the film is paired with ‘s Portrait of a Young Man, an experiment which is almost an hour of nature shots, with no young man to be found.
Bizarrely, someone created a 3D version of A Page of Madness for DVD (buy).
Of course, as a public domain film, A Page of Madness is available legally over the Internet. We’ll give you two options. A high-quality YouTube upload runs for 78 minutes (the Blu-ray is only 71 minutes), but is completely silent. The Internet Archive’s version runs only 59 minutes in a low-fidelity presentation, but does have an (uncredited) soundtrack (with a lot of crackle and hiss). Take your pick, or research alternatives on your own.
(This movie was nominated for review by“Fred Hatt,” who called it “a masterpiece of expressionist silent cinema, filled with strikingly bizarre images.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)