A Page of Madness: The Lost, Avant Garde Masterpiece from Early 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)

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beau­ty of Tra­di­tion­al Japan

Aki­ra Kurosawa’s 100 Favorite Movies

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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