This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – A Page of Madness (1926)
Cinema, as an entertainment medium, is a balance between storytelling and visuals. Some movies strike a harmonious balance while others, particularly genre films, tend to lean towards one aspect or the other, often to the movie’s detriment. Horror movies, in particular, not always but generally rely more upon the images on the screen than upon the strength of the story being told. However, there are some movies where the visuals are so captivating that the story, present though muddled into incoherence, becomes almost unnecessary. A Page of Madness (1926), directed by Japanese filmmaker Teinosuke Kinugasa, is such a film.
It is perhaps a small miracle that we still have it. Most of Japan’s silent films are lost forever. Already accustomed to moving pictures via the tradition of Magic Lantern shows, the country’s foray into cinema began in 1897, and the following year they were making ghost movies. Heavily influenced by traditional theater, cinemas began incorporating benshis who became integral parts of the filmmaking industry. These performers, following a rich tradition of oral storytelling, would narrate the silent films, often accompanied by music, spouting the dialogue of characters, explaining scenes, or sometimes even informing the audience of scenes that were missing. They gave viewers an immersive peek into the filmmaking process. With the rise of talkies, the benshi’s place quickly waned. Yet they alone would not disappear. The early twentieth century was not kind to film – almost no one saw the merit in preserving it, and the nitrate film quickly decayed, particularly in Japan’s humid climate. The earthquake of 1923 sent many more movies into the nether, but perhaps no eater of films was as voracious as the U.S. bombers that rained fire and destruction upon Tokyo in World War II.
Originally released in 1926, the movie was lost until Kinugasa found it in his storehouse in 1971. The movie was unlike anything Japan was producing at the time. Movies in that era were played in one of two types of the theaters: ones that played foreign films and ones that played domestic films, which were generally viewed as inferior. Kinugasa took inspiration from outside Japan, particularly among the French and German Expressionist directors, and A Page was a rare domestic product which played in Japan’s foreign theaters.
It was a collaborative effort of talented writers and artists. Yasunari Kawabata, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, wrote the original story, which would be elaborated upon by Kinugasa and others. Kinugasa then worked with a group of avant-garde performers known as the School of New Perceptions (Shinkankaku-ha), who, to save money, often slept on set over the course of the month-long filming. The star of the movie, Masao Inoue, forwent pay in order to support its making.
The print today is missing nearly a third of its original state, and the lack of inter-titles makes the story confusing at times. The famous benshi Musei Tokugawa narrated the film at its premiere, but without this element to guide modern viewers some scenes are confusing, or their place within the timeline uncertain. The viewer is left guessing and trying to piece together images like a puzzle which we know is missing pieces. Nevertheless, a story can be salvaged: A man’s wife is placed into a mental asylum after, we can guess from various images (a crying baby in a drain, etc.), she tried to drown a baby. He takes a job as the asylum’s janitor, not revealing his identity, to stay near her, though it appears she is unable to recognize him through her hallucinations. One day his daughter and son arrive to visit their mother, seemingly surprised to see their father there, and we can gather that the daughter is there to announce to her mother her recent engagement. At some point the man has an argument with his daughter which compels him to hatch an escape for his wife, but things don’t go as planned. It’s unclear if the final third of the movie is a representation of the man’s own sanity slipping, or his realization of the repercussions that his actions may cause, though this viewer takes it to be the latter.
Nevertheless, the story is largely a mystery, but it is also beside the point. It’s the visuals, which continually place the viewer in the skewed perspective of insanity, that make the movie mesmerizing, and the seeming incoherence of the story only serves to emphasize this aspect. A Page of Madness is a combination of influences, most notably the German Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) by Robert Weine, which dealt with an asylum and the perceptions of madness, and Abel Gance’s experimental 1915 French film La Folie du Docteur Tube, which used distorting lenses to simulate people being high after inhaling a white powder.
A Page begins like a fever dream, with images of an elegant dancing woman in a club intercut with a rainstorm and drums and brass instruments. Gradually the viewer realizes that the music and elegant setting is in the head of a tattered dancing girl in an asylum, played by the captivatingly beautiful Eiko Minami. Though the film is silent, the images and rapid rhythmic editing make the viewer disorientated and think that they too can hear the drums. From there the movie slides back and forth between sobriety and unhinged indulgence, depending on whose eyes the lens is peering through. It’s an experience that, though the viewer is not quite sure what they saw or how to explain it, will linger.