Release date: September 24th, 1926
Running time: 60 minutes
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
Writer: Yasunari Kawabata (short story)
Masao Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa, Ayako Iijima
Many of us probably still remember entering the mysterious place that is the garden shed of our grandparents, years and years ago. And probably we were all thinking the same thing: If we’d look hard enough, we might just find some great treasure under those rusty old chairs or the long forgotten sawing machine. Today, we may think this was merely a naïve childhood fantasy but it turns out, after all, that garden sheds do sometimes hold treasures of immense value.
In 1971, after several decades of thinking it was destroyed in a fire, Japanese director Teinosuke Kinugasa found the original negative of an early work of his, A Page of Madness, in his garden shed. Now the academic consensus seems to be that this avant-garde silent film, made in 1926, is a vital piece in the puzzle of film history.
Much of A Page of Madness is still missing though, and with its just 60 minutes running time the film can be difficult to follow – and it can be interpreted in different ways. At the same time, the film is pure joy for film lovers who want to investigate the origins of cinema. The surrealist approach and lack of inter-titles all add to an intriguing film, inviting us to decipher its cryptic code and uncover the underlying secrets.
The story revolves around a janitor (Masao Inoue) in a lunatic asylum where his disturbed wife (Yoshie Nakagawa) is kept as a patient. We find out that he took this job to be close to her and, in an attempt to reconnect, he tries to break through the barriers of insanity built by a trauma. As their daughter visits to announce her engagement, the family history is revealed in a series of flashbacks as the husband begins to plot to free his wife from the asylum.
I suspect much of what’s missing from the film was originally in its latter half, where the story becomes somewhat less clear as to what is happening. This is amplified by the fact – in my interpretation – that we see the janitor’s own descent into madness later on. One of the remarkable things about this 1926 film is that madness is actually visualised mise-en-scene in very innovative ways for its time. In 1983, not long after the film was rediscovered, Vlada Petric stated in an article:
While the daily happenings of the asylum unfold, the disturbed state of mind of the janitor’s wife and then the janitor himself reveals a tragic story of unbearable parental guilt and desperation. There’s a very intense sequence where a female patient dances in her cell and generates unrest amongst the other patients watching her performance behind bars. Inviting us to read the social subtext in the scene, Kinugasa lets the woman dance persistently while the mayhem outside gradually turns violent and out of control.
I found the music aligned to the mood of the film nearing the point of perfection, especially in the wonderfully hypnotic opening where the dancing woman is first shown in a very different context from the asylum. However, the soundtrack was not part of the film when it was originally screened in 1926; it was added after the film was found in 1971, personally supervised by Kinugasa. I imagined a different music for certain scenes, and it would be interesting to watch the scene where daughter visits her mother in the asylum with music that conveys some melodrama, for instance.
A Page Of Madness seems reminiscent of The Cabinet of Caligari (1920) in its ways of depicting mental illness. Stylistically and in its execution, however, it is very different from Robert Wiene’s expressionist classic. Using techniques such as whip pan, superimposition, fast cutting, distorted surrealistic imagery and an intriguingly ambiguous narrative, A Page of Madness was well ahead of its time and is deserving its rightful place in film history.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.