Retro Review: A Page of Madness [Kurutta Ippeji] (1926)
One of the oldest surviving Japanese films, A Page of Madness is more than just a historical footnote.
The early days of Japanese cinema offer few relics accessible to modern audiences. The highly volatile nature of early film stock made it a constant fire risk, a risk exacerbated by Allied bombings during World War 2. The censorship of the pre-war government and then the American occupational government was a double gauntlet for a film to overcome to survive to the present day. If a film clears all of those hurdles, it faces the daunting task of remaining relevant. Some early silent films are still entertaining today, but a vast majority of them are merely curiosities. A Page of Madness is certainly a historical curiosity, but its groundbreaking techniques make it a fascinating watch, even as it frustrates a modern audience.
A Page of Madness [Kurutta Ippeji] (1926)
An old man (Masao Inoue) works as a janitor at an asylum for the insane. Unbeknownst to the staff, he is secretly keeping watch over one patient – his wife, who went mad due to his abuse and attempted to drown their infant son. Wracked by guilt, he acts as her guardian, hoping to one day free her from confinement. Events become complicated when the couple’s adult daughter arrives to see her mother and is shocked to find her father there. She is about to be married, but is afraid that the groom’s family will dismiss her if they find out her mother is mad. This accelerates the old man’s plan -and his own descent into madness – as he desperately tries to secure his daughter’s happiness and his wife’s freedom.
In the Can.
For the longest time, A Page of Madness existed in description only. One of the most famous Benshi of the era (professional narrators whose performance was nearly as important to the film’s meaning as the actors) performed it at a prestigious theater, making it a cultural sensation among Japanese film society…though the film did poorly with audiences. Because of the cultural plaudits, there was ample evidence of the film’s existence and structure. Because of the poor reception, it disappeared from theaters and from history until the director found a shortened version in a rice can in his shed in 1971. It’s a good thing Teinosuke Kinugasa was a pack rat!
Out of Time.
A Page of Madness was fabulously daring at release, a film ahead of its time. Unfortunately, time caught up to it. The story suffers tremendously when it is divorced from a skilled Benshi. Inspired by early German impressionist film, it eschews the use of inter-titles and therefore lacks cohesion. You can puzzle out some of the plot, but there’s no way you’d get the plot synopsis above from just watching the film without narration.
The film heavily explores the nature of sanity and madness, with events subtly shifting from the actual events of the film to the imagined or perceived world of a character’s mind. Some of it is explicable, such as when a woman dances feverishly to the sound of the rain, imagining it to be a drum with an ever increasing tempo. As she dances, the imagery shifts back and forth between a mad woman in rags throwing herself around, to her mental image of a sumptuously dressed dancer on a stage. The end of the film is nearly completely opaque as we do the same shifting between the father’s attempt to free his wife and his own fevered imagination, but the fantasies are layered so thickly the line blurs to irrelevance.
Despite the story being hard to tease out, the sheer audacity of the conceit is impressive. That final sequence has so many shifts that you can argue, convincingly, that some parts which seem like a fantasy are real and the real parts are actually the fantasy. It’s an Inception-like reinvention of narrative sense. Coupled with cinematography that feels decades ahead of its time, you get a film that may defy description but is crafted superbly.
Kinugasa is not afraid to get extremely close to his subjects, allowing the extremely expressive Inoue to sell the drama of his scenes. The director also uses rapid cuts, dissolves, and double exposures to imbue scenes with moods and emotions. At times the rapid cuts can feel gratuitous, like a musician indulging in unnecessary notes just to demonstrate his mastery of technique. For the most part, the film feels almost recklessly experimental, using editing tricks that wouldn’t become mainstream for years.
Missing a Page.
A Page of Madness is daring and innovative, and justifies its reception – for both good and ill. Fans of film will recognize a fearless director really pushing the boundaries of his era’s film sensibilities. Folks looking for accessible entertainment will be quickly put off by its oddity. I was lucky enough to have experienced the film during college with a narrator recreating the Benshi experience from actual historical notes. The addition of narration makes a world of difference. Luckily, this film has attained such a landmark status that you can occasionally find such screenings. Not often…and probably not commercially in the US…but they exist.
For the rest of us, though, A Page of Madness will remain a tantalizing oddity, a chimerical film trapped outside of its time.