A Page of Madness: The Lost, Avant Garde Masterpiece from the Early Days of Japanese Cinema (1926)

in Film | July 7th, 2014

It’s a sad fact that the vast majority of silent movies in Japan have been lost thanks to human carelessness, earthquakes and the grim efficiency of the United States Air Force. The first films of hugely important figures like Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Hiroshi Shimizu have simply vanished. So we should consider ourselves fortunate that Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Kuretta Ippei — a 1926 film known in the States as A Page of Madness — has somehow managed to survive the vagaries of fate. Kinugasa sought to make a European-style experimental movie in Japan and, in the process, he made one of the great landmarks of silent cinema. You can watch it above.




Born in 1896, Kinugasa started his adult life working as an onnagata, an actor who specializes in playing female roles. In 1926, after working for a few years behind the camera under pioneering director Shozo Makino, Kinugasa bought a film camera and set up a lab in his house in order to create his own independently financed movies. He then approached members of the Shinkankaku (new impressionists) literary group to help him come up with a story. Author Yasunari Kawabata wrote a treatment that would eventually become the basis for A Page of Madness.

Though the synopsis of the plot doesn’t really do justice to the movie — a retired sailor who works at an insane asylum to care after his wife who tried to kill their child — the visual audacity of Page is still startling today. The opening sequence rhythmically cuts between shots of a torrential downpour and gushing water before dissolving into a hallucinatorily odd scene of a young woman in a rhomboid headdress dancing in front of a massive spinning ball. The woman is, of course, an inmate at the asylum dressed in rags. As her dance becomes more and more frenzied, the film cuts faster and faster, using superimpositions, spinning cameras and just about every other trick in the book.

While Kinugasa was clearly influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which also visualizes the inner world of the insane, the movie is also reminiscent of the works of French avant-garde filmmakers like Abel Gance, Russian montage masters like Sergei Eisenstein and, in particular, the subjective camerawork of F. W. Murnau in Der Letzte Mann. Kinugasa incorporated all of these influences seamlessly, creating an exhilarating, disturbing and ultimately sad tour de force of filmmaking. The great Japanese film critic Akira Iwasaki called the movie “the first film-like film born in Japan.”

When A Page of Madness was released, it played at a theater in Tokyo that specialized in foreign movies. Page was indeed pretty foreign compared to most other Japanese films at the time. The movie was regarded, film scholar Aaron Gerow notes, as “one of the few Japanese works to be treated as the ‘equal’ of foreign motion pictures in a culture that still looked down on domestic productions.” Yet it didn’t change the course of Japanese cinema, and it was thought of as a curiosity at a time when most films in Japan were kabuki adaptations and samurai stories.

Page disappeared not long after its release and, for over 50 years, was thought lost until Kinugasa found it in his own storehouse in 1971. During that time Kinugasa received a Palme d’Or and an Oscar for his splashy samurai spectacle The Gate of Hell (1953) and Kawabata, who wrote the treatment, got a Nobel Prize in Literature for writing books like Snow Country about a lovelorn geisha.

You can find A Page of Madness on our list of Free Silent Films, which is part of our collection,  1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

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Comments (10)

  1. Jeremy Novak says . . .
    July 7, 2014 / 9:23 pm

    Thank you! This is amazing. Any idea who is responsible for the soundtrack, which I am assuming was added later on?

  2. Jonathan Crow says . . .
    July 7, 2014 / 9:51 pm

    I believe it was done by the Aono Jikken Ensemble and yes, it was added with the re-release of the movie in the 1970s.

  3. cinco says . . .
    July 8, 2014 / 12:16 am

    “grim efficiency of the United States Air Force”

    Americans were just as destructive as the Nazis when it came to art and culture.

  4. Sophia says . . .
    July 8, 2014 / 4:54 am

    What a beautiful piece! Magnificent!

  5. Ray says . . .
    July 8, 2014 / 7:40 am

    It looks so interesting!Thanks!

  6. Cel says . . .
    July 22, 2014 / 11:59 pm

    Wow, you guys don’t know? Most pre-wwII films are lost because the US burned the archives. Not because of “the vagaries of time” or something.

    Source: http://www.amazon.com/Hundred-Years-Japanese-Film-Selective/dp/1568364393

  7. Chris says . . .
    March 19, 2015 / 2:18 am

    The Japanese title is transliterated as Kurutta Ippēji, not what you have. Thanks for drawing attention to this though.

  8. JazzFeathers says . . .
    September 5, 2015 / 11:32 pm

    This is really a gem. Thanks so much for sharing.

  9. Spencer says . . .
    February 19, 2016 / 4:05 pm

    The score is indeed by Aono Jikken Ensemble, but it was definitely not added in the 1970s. Someone added it to this particular video version much later. Aonno Jiken Ensemble was founded in 1997. “A Page of Madness” was the first silent film they scored, the following year. The debut performance was for the 1998 Seattle Asian American Film Festival, at a midnight screening at the old Speakeasy cafe (now defunct).

    See e.g. this recent interview with AJE founder Bill Blauvelt — http://www.nwasianweekly.com/2015/06/no-silent-treatment-classic-film-receives-soundtrack-from-local-ensemble/

    Later in 1998, a recording of their accompaniment was independently released on CD.

    Cite: https://www.discogs.com/Aono-Jikken-Ensemble-A-Page-Of-Madness/release/1385644

    The group’s rehearsals for a later performance was the subject of a short experimental documentary, “Jikken,” made in 2005 by Doug Ing in fulfillment of the requirements for a MFA degree from City College of New York, and screened that year as part of the college’s annual Cityvisions festival.

    Source: http://www.asianamericanfilm.com/archives/000949.html

    Watch “Jikken” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1sUtYwA5jA
    (posted by the filmmaker)

  10. ndkent says . . .
    June 12, 2016 / 2:47 pm

    Turner Classic Movies has aired the George Eastman House Archives print of this film. The image quality is, as one would guess,far better than the VHS digitized here. What is interesting is they are using what appears to be the same score as here. Further observations are that in quiet moments one hears 35mm sorts of optical sound pops and clicks on the turner airing. Also it’s worth noting that the film with the soundtrack is being played at 24 frames a second here and on TCM giving it a sped up look that in many cases adds to the frenzy though may not be an accurate representation of how the film looked when played back slower in the day.

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