This 1926 film, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, is considered to be one of the first Japanese experimental films. Despite the fact that its story is fairly straightforward by modern standards of “experimental,” the film uses a number of innovative and effective techniques of camerawork, cutting, multiple exposures, lighting, montage editing, and even elements of animation. The story is set in an asylum, where the custodian is trying to bring his wife (who is one of patients) back to sanity. Their daughter arrives to visit and tells him of her engagement. The film is full of intercut flashbacks, images of nature, and distorted visions, and the movement of the characters’ thoughts is often translated to the physical movement of the camera. There are no intertitles, which makes the action a little difficult to follow, but the lack of titles is an important part of the film. At the time, movies in Japan were, in addition to musical accompaniment, narrated for the audience by a benshi, a professional performer who specialized in narrating and commenting on silent films. Kinugasa wanted to present a subjective experience, produce a subjective reaction in his audience, and make the viewing of his films as unmediated as possible, which is why he dispensed with intertitles. Although the film was narrated by a benshi, Kinugasa wanted to avoid their presence to provide a “pure” film experience. A Page of Madness was one of the very first Japanese “independent narrative” films, which is part of the reason why the effects are so rich, varied, and pervasive. Kinugasa strove to portray the sensory experience solely through cinema, without the interference of language, and to suppress the presence of the benshi by the sheer power of his imagery.
Kinugasa was associated with a group of Japanese artists who were part of a movement they called shinkankakuha (“new perceptions”). The movement started out as literary, but Kinugasa was anxious to carry its philosophy over to the world of film. This movement, as William O. Gardner defines it in his article “New Perceptions: Kinugasa Teinosuke’s Films and Japanese Modernism,” was focused on portraying a direct, subjective sensory experience and the anxiety about the effects of the experience both psychologically and socially. The way Kinugasa translated this to the screen has much in common with German Expressionism: the preoccupation with subjectivity; the distorted imagery used to illustrate psychological and mental states; and in the instance of A Page of Madness, a fascination with rhythm. One of the most effective techniques used in the film is the increasingly rapid crosscutting of images that mimics the rhythm of music or dance, until they all blur together and cease to make sense. The explicit discussion of and emphasis on psychology, however, is more prevalent than in Expressionism. Not only does the film take place in an asylum and concern itself deeply with the way the patients see the world, the crosscutting of seemingly random images can be compared to what one shinkankakuha writer termed “psychological free association.” The effect of the subjective experience is of paramount importance in the film. As Gardner remarks, A Page of Madness expresses a deep anxiety that madness will carry over from the insane to the sane and go on to infect the viewer. You’ve been warned!
Further reading: William O. Gardner, “New Perceptions: Kinugasa Teinosuke’s Films and Japanese Modernism,” in Cinema Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3, Spring 2004 (requires JSTOR login).