Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa
I remember a trip that I took with my family to Cancun, Mexico a few years ago. We were celebrating my parents wedding anniversary in style complete with the best rooms in the best hotel that we could find (my parents having their own room, of course). During one of the many long walks that I took with my dad, we came across a strange collection of rocks along the main walkway. Puzzled, we asked one of the employees what they were doing there. We were shocked to find out that they were ancient ruins that were on the land when the hotel was built. Sharing my father's great passion for history, we asked what culture they were from. Aztec? Inca? Or maybe even something older? He shrugged, said they had no idea, and walked away. We then spent several minutes looking at the rocks.
They were fairly regular rocks. Nothing about them spoke of any apparent use that they may have had thousands of years ago. But that didn't stop us from thinking. Could these old rocks have once been the altar in a forbidden temple? Maybe they were something less impressive, like the foundations of a building? Was it something commonplace or did it have some special purpose within the forgotten indigenous community? After a few minutes, my father said that he was going back to his room and left. But I stayed. I wanted to dream just a little bit longer...
People who are interested in history are familiar with the sense of fascination that I felt in that moment. I was looking at something so old that nobody knew why is was there or who put it there. But the feeling isn't exclusive to ancient ruins. The same feelings of wistful melancholy over lost history can be felt at battlefields that are not even a century old. They can be felt looking at a relative's uniform back when they were fighting in the first Great War. They can even be felt after discovering a long lost toy that was once a steadfast companion during more innocent days.
And yes, they can be felt when viewing old movies. In a few years the cinema will be over 110 years old. It would only stand to reason that many films, especially strange, obscure ones, would disappear into the sands of time. Thankfully, some are recovered and restored. But what happens to silent films that are found without any title or speech cards? Let me take this question one step further: What about films that have no dialogue cards, no title cards, and no narrative coherence? Well, such a film does exist. It is the legendary 狂った一頁 , translated as A Page of Madness (1926). Oh, there is a story all right, but we have almost no idea what it is. We know who directed it (Teinosuke Kinugasa), we know who star in it (Masao Inoue and Yoshie Nakagawa), and we know who made it (the Shinkankaku-ha, or School of New Perceptions, an avant garde group of artists). But the narrative remains lost in time. We get a general feel of characters, locations, and even a trace of a story. But we will never know their true motivations. We will never know the fine print of the storyline. Ladies and gentlemen, A Page of Madness is the closest thing we have to a genuine cinematic fossil.
Of course, it was not designed that way. It was designed for audiences to understand the story. But to explain this, perhaps a short history lesson is in order. During the 1920s in Japan, movies would be narrated by 弁士, or benshi. It literally translates to speech person. They would stand to the side of the movie screen and narrate the film, provide commentary on the story, and even voice the on-screen characters. They would coordinate this with live musical accompaniment provided with instruments that would regularly be found in kabuki plays. In fact, the art of being a benshi is stems from kabuki and Noh theater. Therefore, the benshi added an entire element to the theatrical experience.
In addition to provided narration and context throughout the film, benshi also would introduce the film. Sometimes the introduction would include the history of the film's setting. Missing scenes would also be explained to the audience. Therefore, the benshi was a vital part of the film industry. Taking away a benshi from a film would frequently cause disorientation. And now we return to A Page of Madness. It was a film designed for the aid of a benshi. Therefore, with the absence of benshi, we have a film that is isolated within itself. We have no idea what the setting is, what happens to the characters, and even what the characters say. It is like an ancient stone altar without any ritual markings. It is like a great monument without a plaque. It is like a magnificent fresco missing a signature. It is a film that time forgot.
But thankfully, we still have the film. Those intrepid enough to try and make heads or tails of it are in for a one-of-a-kind film experience. With no help, no narration, and no explanation, A Page of Madness is a movie that you literally discover for yourself as it plays.
It opens with a chilling sequence of a woman dancing at an ornate ball. Well, it would be a ball if she wasn't the only one there. Dressed in a dazzling outfit, she dances like mad. Suddenly, we cut to a woman, dressed in rags, doing the same dance. The film cuts to jail cell bars. Then, we are treated to an early film montage of this poor woman dancing mixed with several instruments playing. Slowly, we begin to realize the truth about this woman: she is a patient in an insane asylum. As she collapses onto the ground with bloodied feet, it becomes apparent that she is dancing to music that only she can hear. Even after she collapses, a spidery hand taps out a hallucinatory beat on the cell floor.
A nervous man walks by cell after cell looking in at the inhabitants. Each one is gripped by insanity. Then finally he arrives at the woman's cell. He looks hard at her. Suddenly, there is a cut to a scene of a woman trying to drown an infant. Is it her? Wait, yes, it must be her. He walks away mournfully. Suddenly, a young woman in a kimono approaches a large gate. She is allowed in and meets the man. He acts shocked to see her. Then they both go over to the dancing lady's cell. They look in, look at each other, and then look down at the floor miserably. The dancing woman takes no notice.
This all takes place during the first fifteen minutes of this hour long film. It establishes three characters: the dancing lady, the caretaker, and the young woman. We know there is some connection between the three. They seem to recognize each other. Well, at least the caretaker and the young woman do. And they both seem to recognize the dancing lady. So what is their connection? Well, many essays and even a book has been written concerning the plot. Far be it from me to ruin the plot of the film. The plot is an enigma, and should remain so for those who want to watch it. It is the viewer's task to fit the pieces together, like an archaeologist rummaging through fossils or a historian pouring through ancient historical documents.
But what I can discuss is the style. One of the main triumphs of A Page of Madness is how it develops its atmosphere. Unlike many other silent horror films from the same era, like F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926), that can seem like endurance tests for modern audiences, A Page of Madness remains strangely watchable. It flows with a kinetic energy that would not be utilized in film, especially Japanese film, for several more decades. Montages, dutch angles, closeups, and even tracking shots are frequently used to keep the film moving. They work as a perfect counterpoint to the claustrophobic setting of the insane asylum. They evoke the same madness felt by the inmates and the people charged with protecting and healing them.
Wait, something just occurred to me. The dancing woman is not the same person as the woman that the caretaker and young woman go meet. They are two different people. So why does the film linger on her at the beginning and throughout the film? She causes a small riot near the halfway point of the film. The segment is filmed with what I can only be assumed to be unusual lenses. Most of the shots look like they are being reflected by fun house mirrors that distort whatever appears in them. What is the point of this scene? Like most of the details of this film, the dialogue, the characters, and their motivations, they will remain an enigma for future generations of film goers to figure out.