Teinosuke 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.
Every year Serge Bromberg brings a forgotten jewel from the silent era to the L’Étrange Festival. This year the audience was treated to one of the early films by Teinosuke Kinugasa, best known for his Cannes-awarded and universally acclaimed Gate of Hell (1953). Although it did not meet with immediate success at home, A Page of Madness was considered by Kinugasa to be his favourite film. The story goes that he had it buried in his garden shed during the war and unearthed it only in 1971, which allowed for the worldwide circulation of a newly restored copy. So much for the legend; the truth is that at least three other copies of the film had survived.
The film itself is a mystery, in the total absence of intertitles. The audience is helped (if that is the right way to put it) by a few hints gleaned from contemporary reviews: the story is one of a janitor in a lunatic asylum, a former sailor who took on the job to look after his wife who had been locked there after attempting suicide and drowning her baby daughter. Yet, without those loose plot-threads, the opening sequence of the film would not necessarily suggest the same story. The first minutes after the credits offer a puzzling montage that leaves little doubt as to whether Kinugasa knew Eisenstein’s work. Shots of rainy streets, rushing cars, lightning-lit barred windows and water pouring down stairs create a frenzied acceleration of pace that dissolves into a dance show on an art-deco scene, dominated by a revolving, hypnotizing ball, before the camera zooms back to reveal bars that transport us into the asylum where another dancer, shabby-clothed and barefoot, madly performs in her cell to the sound of imaginary drums and trombones, while thunder and lightning tear the sky, in swift intertitle-like inserts of white painted thunder bolts against a black background.
After this wild sequence 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, a proud orphan of the Shinkankakuha movement (The New Sensation School). The film also betrays one of the screenwriters’ obsession with dancers – none other than the great Yasunari Kawabata, who had just received acclaim for his short story ‘The Dancing Girl of Izu’. Yet, if A Page of Madness is often considered the Japanese answer to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), it’s actually Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau who seemed to exert a much stronger influence on Kinugasa, and in particular The Last Man (1924) which may well have inspired the absence of intertitles, so that the images could speak for themselves. Though very far from any asylum or institution, The Last Man also offers similar scenes of dreams and fantasies, using lens distortion and playing with perspective to alter the perceived reality of the drunken porter played by Emil Jannings, one of Kinugasa’s favourite actors.
Serge Bromberg and David Sheppard spent the last two years restoring the film for a DVD release, but last June they heard a rumour that the text of the benshi (which was a narration read over the film to the audience by professional actors) was rediscovered in Japan, and have decided to postpone the project, thus leaving us in unbearable suspense as to what really happens in the film.