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

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,  4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

Aki­ra Kuro­sawa & Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la Star in Japan­ese Whisky Com­mer­cials (1980)

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 (13)
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  • Jeremy Novak says:

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

  • Jonathan Crow says:

    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.

  • cinco says:

    “grim effi­cien­cy of the Unit­ed States Air Force”

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

  • Sophia says:

    What a beau­ti­ful piece! Mag­nif­i­cent!

  • Ray says:

    It looks so interesting!Thanks!

  • Cel says:

    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

  • Chris says:

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

  • JazzFeathers says:

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

  • Spencer says:

    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)

  • ndkent says:

    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.

  • Value says:

    “Page of Mad­ness” seems to have slipped off the Free Silent Films page?

  • Dan Streible says:

    About the music track:

    The end cred­its on the YouTube ver­sion to which this Open­Cul­ture item links clear­ly says the music is by the Alloy Orches­tra, © 2016. For Film Preser­va­tion Asso­ciates; its part­ner Flick­er Alley released the DVD/BR in 2017 with Alloy score.

    Yet the notes 2016 com­ments above by Spencer have a lot of help­ful, author­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion about the score/s for PAGE OF MADNESS. But I’m con­fused, since the com­ments say the YouTube is from a VHS dig­i­ti­za­tion. And the score def­i­nite­ly by Aono Jikken Ensem­ble.

    Could Open Cul­ture have updat­ed the YouTube link after the 2016 com­ments? Per­haps the video with a Jikken score has been tak­en down?

    But my real ques­tion is: WHAT IS THE SOURCE OF THIS MUSIC??


    No music attri­bu­tion is giv­en in this 2016 YouTube post by some­thing called “Video Archive” chan­nel.

  • sae says:

    This ver­sion was com­posed by Murao­ka Minoru in 1971 and it was com­mis­sioned and approved by the direc­tor him­self.

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