This week Jason Julier takes a look at a piece of silent cinema from Japan.
Japanese films from the silent era are a rare breed thanks to a combination of natural disasters particularly the Kanto Earthquake of 1923, war and the problems associated with old film stock. In the West despite the lists of ‘missing films’ from this era, generally we’re very fortunate to have the body of work left today that still exists for viewing. When you review the locations of newly rediscovered films, these vary across the globe including Australia, Russia, Germany and South America. Japanese films were not exported until the 1950’s and this means film stock was concentrated in a specific geographical location. The end result is that print distribution was very limited and the chances of survival without the backdrop of an export market are extremely slim.
In Japan what remains is merely a fragment of film output, which was estimated to have produced over 7000 films in the 1920’s alone. Estimates are that just 1% has survived with the West also playing its part in the destruction of this heritage. For a quick example consider the work of none other than Yasujiro Ozu, as approximately 19 of his early films are lost or incomplete. This represents a huge chunk of his filmography and is indicative of other directors from this period, most notably Sadao Yamanaka who is reduced to a mere footnote with only 3 films left in existence.
Japanese studios on the whole were careless regarding storage and many silent films were never seen again after their theatrical release. The Allied forces managed to destroy most of what was left not only through ferocious bombing campaigns in 1945, but also via censorship. The Nazi’s may have burned books, but during the American occupation in 1946, it was decided to burn 225 films that were deemed to be dangerous. Yes, some of these films would have indeed reflected the growing sense of nationalism in the 1930’s within Japan, but we can only speculate at what was lost. Particularly as what remains today offers a glimpse of some of the most stunning and memorable examples of the silent film genre, mostly removed from the influence of Europe and America.
That’s enough of the history lesson; instead this week’s film is unique in cinema and even managed to appear in Mark Cousins series A Story of Film recently. Kurutta Ippeiji, is known in the West as A Page of Madness or can also be translated as “A Page Out of Order”, which also works within the context of the film itself. Released in 1926 and financed by director Teinosuke Kinugasa who almost became bankrupt because of it. A Page of Madness clearly influenced by some of the avant-garde expressionist films from Germany and elsewhere which were shown in Japan around this time. Kinugasa may have taken some inspiration from these works and with colleagues created a bold film that is uniquely Japanese and deals with institutional psychiatry and the emotional impact on all involved. This film would never have existed within the Japanese studio system, so we must be thankful for the resourcefulness of everyone involved in raising the funds to complete filming. It was well received but due to its origins outside of the Japanese studio system, Kinugasa struggled to distribute the film. It was only due to the influence of the notable Benshi (more about this later) Musei Tokugawa, that the film received a premier in Tokyo at the Musashinokan cinema, known for showing films outside of Japan.
Why psychiatry? Well, Kinugasa was originally driven by style and the need to pursue this visual approach and the setting that made most sense was one of madness. This in turn opened up the potential for dream sequences, deranged imagery and an assault on the senses as we ventured into the minds of the afflicted. The danger with such a backdrop is that events become incoherent and without substance. The film was based on an initial treatment by author Yasunari Kawabata where we follow a retired sailor who has returned home after initially leaving his family behind to see the world as a young man. He takes a janitor job in a lunatic asylum so that he can spend more time with his wife who is an inpatient. His feelings of regret, guilt and sadness are obvious as he sees the state of his wife who seems oblivious to everything. The remainder of his family are affected by his sudden departure and from what we see, try to continue life as if he never returned. The only one who tries to break this spell is his grandson, who seems delighted that he has returned alive from his epic voyage.
The meanings within the film, its structure, the characters and narrative have been widely debated. This is partially because when it was released in 1926 the tradition was to have a Benshi within the theatre that would provide the narrative for what was unfolding onscreen. A Benshi did not consult a script or studios notes, instead they brought their own opinions to the narrative, often performing the roles of various onscreen characters. They were an extension of the film and a bridge from traditional Japanese theatre and a huge draw for cinema goers in their own right. The Benshi were popular in Japan and from what is known about the release of A Page of Madness, the famous Benshi, Musei Tokugawa met with Kinugasa’s approval during its theatrical run in Tokyo. With the film not having title cards (in this version) or the methods we associate with communicating the storyline in silent film, the role of the Benshi would have been paramount in guiding viewers through this bizarre spectacle.
The film itself was considered lost for many decades until it was discovered apparently in Kinugasa’s garden shed of all places in 1971, where he had stashed it for safekeeping with the threat of World War 2 imminent. The director thankful for his garden retreat set about reissuing the film and oversaw a new musical accompaniment, which is as dazzling and inventive as the onscreen imagery. The discovery of this lost masterpiece meant that we could finally appreciate the uniqueness of A Page of Madness. Putting aside the restoration soundtrack, in a modern context it plays out like an experimental pop video of recent times. Startling black and white imagery, with almost every camera, lighting and editing trick known to a young Japanese director in the 1920’s thrown into this mesmerising melting pot spectacle.
Now I should take a moment to highlight what Kinugasa apparently did when he had discovered the original print of A Page of Madness. By all accounts having the original version of the film in his hands was not enough. Instead the director set about reediting the theatrical cut to create a more avant-garde version, which excised the more mainstream drama segments of the film in an attempt (I presume) to rewrite history. Originally screened at 18fps, this 1970’s re-evaluation runs at 24fps and this accounts for its shorter running time, but there is undoubtedly footage missing. While Kinugasa has every right to create a ‘directors cut’ or should I suggest an ‘avant-garde’ cut, we may never see the film as it was originally presented.
A Page of Madness is an explosion of invention. Strong performances from the main cast members particularly Masao Inoue, hold your onscreen attention. The set designs are indicative of the avant-garde feel of the film; its use of movement and dance becomes hypnotic and provocative. Who is the dancing woman in the neighbouring cell? Why does she dance ferociously until her body collapses from the torment? Kinugasa handles the topic of madness and mental health with care, refusing to fall into the trap of a ‘mad doctor’ or invasive experiments. For the majority of the film, the inpatients and their carers seem happy with the containment. Through the use of dreams and nightmares we can peer into their minds and see their motivations and regrets. For the janitor left to reflect on his actions as a young man he has much to consider, as do we having experienced this wonderful film, even in this reimagined version it retains a unique, haunting and hypnotic quality.