Monday, September 9, 2013

A Few Notes on Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Suitably Maddening A Page of Madness

I don’t really have a good handle on what exactly happens in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926), an avant-garde silent film without intertitles and with editing so violent that Hype Williams himself would see it and say, “Whoa, dude, chill.” Kinugasa, who would go on to direct the early color masterpiece The Gate of Hell (1953) made A Page of Madness in collaboration with Yasunari Kawabata (the future Nobel laureate) and a group called the Shinkankaku-ha, which Wikipedia helpfully explains means “School of New Perceptions,” who “tried to overcome naturalistic representation.”  This wasn’t perhaps as tall an order in the Japanese cinema of the period as it would have been in other national cinemas.  The early days of cinema saw filmmakers trying (and often failing) to draw a distinction between film and the similar craft of stage drama that preceded it.  Now, in Russia or Scandinavia or Germany, the drama of the period immediately preceding cinema had reached great heights of naturalism (Chekhov, Ibsen).  Japanese drama, by contrast, had a long history of being profoundly unnatural (there is nothing naturalistic about the Noh drama or Kabuki.  The closest thing Japan had to naturalistic theater was, interestingly enough, the Bunraku puppet theater).

So, what did the School of New Perceptions achieve with A Page of Madness.  First, let’s dispense with the plot, or what there is of it, and much of which I drew from the Wikipedia summary rather than my viewing of the movie: Kinugasa’s film is about the experiences of a janitor at an insane asylum whose wife is one of the patients there.  At various points in the film, he appears to attempt to liberate her from her incarceration.  He also has a daughter who flits about, and whom Wiki claims was unaware that her father was a janitor until he discovers him janitoring midway through the film (so this anticipates Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata by about eighty years).
So much for the plot.  The heart of the movie is in its imagery and its editing.  A Page of Madness unfolds as a rapid-fire series of surreal and nightmare images, of grotesque laughing faces and the contorted bodies of lunatics.  The film climaxes with a grotesque coup de grace, as the internees don Noh masks which, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, can be just downright horrifying.  And again, the editing: by 1926, Japanese filmmakers clearly had a grasp of the montage technique that was just as good as anything coming out of the Soviet Union and just as dazzlingly disjointed as the latest Nine Inch Nails video.

Well if this isn't just the creepiest thing ever...
I would also like to point out that this movie is far more surreal than anything Buñuel and Dali would do a few years later with their far more famous films, Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or.  There is something profoundly juvenile about the two Spaniards’ provocations when contrasted with the expert grotesqueries of Kawabata and Kinugasa.  Had this film been made in France or Germany, chances are it would have garnered far more international attention than it did coming from 1920’s Japan, when Japanese cinema had yet to stride across the world stage as it would in the fifties and sixties.  Interestingly, and like all too many silent movies, it was considered lost for decades, and it was only in 1971 that Kinugasa discovered a copy in his storehouse.  The version we have today is missing about a third of its original content, but I suspect that even in its unabridged form it wouldn’t have made any more sense.  It is, after all, a page of madness.

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