A woman is committed to a mental institution after her baby drowns while her sailor husband is away. He is now a janitor at the asylum. Their adult daughter is about to marry but is worried about her fiancé’s reaction to her mother’s madness. She visits the asylum and is surprised to find her father working there. A bearded patient attacks her in the gardens but the daughter runs away. One of the inmates dances and rouses the asylum into a frenzied riot during which the wife is thrown to the ground by the same bearded patient. The janitor attacks him and is reprimanded by the asylum director. Back in his room, the janitor dreams of winning a lottery prize that he can give to his daughter as a wedding gift. He tries to persuade his wife to escape the asylum but she is afraid to leave. He dreams that in the escape he kills the director and that his daughter marries the bearded patient. The next day he imagines that he gives all the patients folk masks and dons one himself. Later he mops the floor of the asylum as the bearded patient bows to him.
Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896–1982) began his career in film as an onnagata, acting female roles, before becoming a director in the early 1920s. A Page of Madness, inspired partly by Kinugasa’s visit to Tokyo’s Matsuzawa mental hospital, was his first real success and was supported by a number of influential figures. Yasunari Kawabata, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, was commissioned to write a ‘good, artistic film’ and the celebrated actor Masao Inoue starred as the janitor. The film, while produced independently, was supported by the major film studio Sho-chiku and a managing director, Shirai Shintaro-, offered Kinugasa the use of an abandoned studio in Kyoto free of charge. Sho-chiku also invested in the film which eventually cost around 20,000 yen, more than most high-budget studio productions of the time (Gerow 2008: 22–7). The film was first screened publicly in Tokyo on 10 July 1926 and received mixed reviews which saw the film as, either bravely experimental, elitist, or even highly accessible and realistic (see Gerow 2008: 56–64). The film disappeared soon afterwards and Kinugasa assumed that the print had been destroyed in a fire at the Sho-chiku studios. In 1971, however, the director found two prints concealed in rice cans in his old house and the film was restored with an added soundtrack and rereleased in 1975.
The film was associated with the Shinkankaku (new impressionist) school of avant-garde and modernist literature, not least since Kawabata and a number of the other writers associated with the film1 were allied with the Shinkankaku. This movement acknowledged the influence of cubism, futurism and surrealism and therefore it is not surprising that traces of these are often discerned in A Page of Madness. More radically, Shinkankaku rejected traditional literary and other artistic forms as ‘yesterday’s shit’ (Peterson 1989: 38), and the film has been read as an oppositional political tract. Gerow is careful to position Kinugasa within the existing Japanese avant-garde and within independent and experimental cinema of the time, particularly the Pure Film Movement, in contrast to the sense in the 1980s that Kinugasa arrived at the making of the film ex nihilo with ‘no cinematic training, with no overpowering influences. a completely personal poetic statement in cinema’ (Richie quoted in Gerow 2008: 20).
A Page of Madness has no intertitles and was designed to be projected without the usual accompanying commentary of a benshi actor. Kinugasa particularly cites the importance of F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, Germany, 1924), another attempt to dispense with intertitles, to this approach. The film attempts to present the subjective mental experience of many of its characters while still maintaining a surprisingly straightforward sense of narrative. The film experiments with cinematography to present the personal viewpoints of various characters and Peterson identifies a number of innovative technical devices that occur throughout the film: superimpositions, distortion of the image with a curved mirror, whip pans, spot lighting, split screens, upside-down footage and soft focus (Peterson 1989: 42). The editing structure of the film often confuses the reality of the mental asylum with recollections, hallucinations and characters’ subjective perception of themselves. This last feature is perhaps the most sophisticated and Gerow comments that ‘subjective depictions were prominent in Shinkankaku writing but less in order to authenticate the perceiving subject than to explore how immediate subjective impressions could complicate subjective unity’ (Gerow 2008: 14). A Page of Madness quite radically undermines the stability of not only what we see but who the characters in the film really are. For Gerow, the film tries to show subjective states through the manipulation of cinematography and editing rather than through mise en scène like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Gerow 2008: 80). The most obvious understanding of the film is that it is told mainly and fairly reliably from the point of view of the janitor with frequent switches to the subjective mental states of other characters, most notably his wife, who recalls the circumstances of her baby’s drowning, and the dancing woman. The dancer’s representation appears to be her own imagining of herself as a Kabuki performer in front of a striped, revolving ball. This creates a moiré pattern that is echoed in frequent images of cell bars but also in the button that the wife frequently uses to facilitate her hallucinations. What is striking about the dancer’s vision of herself is that her fellow inmates seem to be able to see it as well. The film argues that there is no particular distinction between subjective and objective realities, and that personal subjective states are available to others within the diegesis just as they are available to the cinematic spectator. Gerow explores the porous nature of borders within the film in some detail and argues that the circular motif (balls, wheels, dots) represents the unstable division between sanity and madness ‘which underlines fears regarding the fate of repetition (for example, the fear that the insane [the mother] will breed the insane [the daughter])’ (Gerow 2008: 87). The fear that madness is always about to engulf sanity is particularly played out in the figure of the janitor who, while ostensibly sane, occupies a rather ambiguous position in the asylum and there is a suggestion – although this is never concretised – that he is either not there (he sometimes appears as a transparent ghost), or that he is himself insane and therefore his vision, which is the film we see, is entirely untrustworthy.
This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the final sequence where the janitor imagines himself distributing masks to all the inmates. Kawabata in a later autobiographical story about the making of the film, The Man Who Did Not Smile, writes: ‘I shall make the last scene a daydream. Gentle smiling masks will appear all over the screen. Since I could not hope to show a bright smile at the end of this dark story, at least I could wrap reality in a beautiful, smiling mask’ (1929/2006: 139). The film scene begins with a long montage reminiscent of Ozu and then we see the janitor handing out Noh masks to the agitated inmates who, on donning them, immediately begin to act normally. The janitor himself finally puts on the mask of an old man, nods happily and is joined by his wife and a gaggle of Noh daughters. While this is clearly marked as happening in his imagination, the following sequence in which the janitor returns to mopping the floor disturbs the apparent simple delineation between illusion and reality. As he mops, the bearded patient is led past and bows deferentially to the janitor as if he were the real power behind the institution. The asylum is the janitor’s creation. Gerow eloquently describes the Kurutta ichipeiji; sometimes ambiguous nature of the film: ‘The vectors of transgression are multiple as outside invades the inside and vice versa. At the same time that the camera first breaks into the asylum, the psychology of the disturbed begins to prompt an invasion of the subjective/unreal into the objective/real’ (2008: 88–9).
A Page of Madness is a tour de force of experimental film design as well as a sophisticated exploration of the possibility of representing not only insanity, but subjectivity as such, on screen. The film finally refuses to indicate who is sane and who is not and in doing so also refutes the easy psychology of attributing mental illness to a single traumatic event.2 The film has been read as a political comment on ‘state repression’ as well as a mise-en-abyme treatise on the role of the artist in contemporary society (Gerow 2008: 84). Kinugasa himself suggests that the film was inspired by a sighting of Emperor Yoshihito (1879–1926), famously troubled by neurological disorders, and that, as Gerow and others point out, the film comes out of a world ‘that masked its own contradictions and delusions in social propriety, national ideology, and abstract order’ (2008: 84). Notes 1. The authorship of the screenplay has been much discussed and Gerow identifies no less than four authors (Yasunari Kawabata, Minoru Inuzuka, Banko- Sawada and Kinugasa himself) and a further four important contributors (Richii Yokomitsu, Kunio Kishida, Teppei Kataoka, Shinzaburo- Iketani). See Gerow’s chapter ‘The Screenplay’ for a full discussion (2008: 26–33). 2. Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria (1895) succinctly – and perhaps rather naïvely – describes the aetiology of hysteria as being a simple, originary and traumatic event which, if uncovered, quickly leads to a complete cure. They write: ‘We found, at first to our great surprise, that the individual hysterical symptoms disappeared immediately and did not recur if we succeeded in wakening the memory of the precipitating event with complete clarity, arousing with it the accompanying affect, and if the patient then depicted the event in the greatest possible detail and put words to the affect’ (p. 10).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Japan. Production Company: Shinkankakuha Eiga Renmei and Nashonaru Ato Firumusha. Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa. Story: Yasunari Kawabata. Screenwriters: Yasunari Kawabata, Minoru Inuzuka, Banko- Sawada, Teinosuke Kinugasa. Cinematographer: Ko-hei Sugiyama. Art directors: Kasaku Hiyashi, Chiba Ozaki. Lighting: Masao Uchida. Editor: Umeko Numazaki. Music (1971): Modern Bamboo Flute Ensemble. Composer: Minoru Muraoka. Arrangement: Yo Kurishima. Cast: Masao Inoue (The Janitor), Yoshie Makagawa (His Wife), Ayako Iijima (Their Daughter), Misao Seki (The Chief Doctor), Eiko Minami (The Dancer), Kyo-suke Takamatsu (The Bearded Patient/ Patient B), Shintaro- Takiguchi (The Gateman’s Son) (Western style – family names last).]
Noël Burch, To The Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Annette Michelson (ed.), Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 126–39.
Eric Cazdyn, The Flash of Capital: Film and Geopolitics in Japan, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2002.
William O. Gardner, ‘New Perceptions: Kinugasa Teinosuke’s Films and Japanese Modernism’, Cinema Journal, 43 (3), pp. 59–78, 2004.
Aaron Gerow, A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, Ann Arbor, Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2008.
Yasunari Kawabata, ‘The Man Who Did Not Smile’ in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, trans. Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1929/2006.
Yasunari Kawabata, ‘Page of Madness’ in Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913–1938, William Jefferson Tyler (ed.), Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, pp. 92–104, 1926/2008.
James Peterson, ‘A War of Utter Rebellion: Kinugasa’s “Page of Madness” and the Japanese Avant-Garde of the 1920s’, Cinema Journal, 29 (1), pp. 36–53, 1989.
Vlada Petric´, ‘Page of Madness: Neglected Masterpiece of the Silent Cinema’, Film Criticism, 8 (1), pp. 86–107, 1983. Jasper Sharp, A Page of Madness (1927), Midnight Eye, 2002. Available at: www.midnighteye.com/ features/silentfilm_pt1.shtml (accessed 26 July 2012).
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.