Since the beginning of fall, I’ve had an unhealthy infatuation with silent films, particularly horror films since Halloween is nearly upon us. I’ve made it a habit of watching TCM at night when I’m trying to fall asleep. There’s something calming about the black-and-white screen and the lack of auditory dialogue, especially when your entire day was spent in some form of verbal or digital dialogue with someone, and the scary movies from back in the day aren’t exactly pieces that will keep me up all night in pure terror.
I was never much for silent movies when I was growing up; I don’t even recall ever watching many black-and-white films. Like most children from the 90s, I need constant stimulation to justify my existence, so slowing down and focusing entirely on the storyline without the glitz and glam of special effects, surround sounds, and hunky actors is challenging to say the least. The melodrama of Old Hollywood is comical, and even though sometimes it is nauseating to see the old stereotypes and ideologies that dictated the early days of film, I largely feel like these films are brief glances into our history; look how far we’ve come, baby, now.
However, recently, I was left completely and utterly astounded by the incredible experimentation of a Japanese silent film from the year 1926. The year of its creation was the most shocking to me because the film can easily hold its own against any art house film from today with its experimental special effects (by 1926 standards), staccato-like, fragmented shooting style, and philosophical plot line. The film: Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, or in Japanese, Kurutta Ippēji.
A Page of Madness loosely tells the story of a man who takes a job as either a janitor or a caretaker in an insane asylum where his wife is a patient (his exact role seems to be lost in translation). The wife’s descent into madness is evident, but somehow, as is often the case in a caretaking role, the man believes on some psychological level that he can save his wife from this ailment. He attempts to bust her out of the asylum, but things go awry, and his wife panics, choosing to remain in her safety net, the asylum that has become her home.
The film is told fragmentedly; at first, there appears to be no real rhyme or reason to what viewers are seeing on screen and how it corresponds to the script that is the backbone of the film. The camera juts back and forth from scene to scene, from actor to actor, in a disjointed, disconnected way, almost as if it were a form of madness in and of itself. I don’t think it is necessarily unfair to call A Page of Madness confusing on the first go, but I do also think it’s fair to say that this incoherence and confusion is what should draw the viewer in for deep examination.
I even feel that using the term “incoherence” should be used gently when discussing A Page of Madness. I use quotations only because, within this context, “incoherence” should only be used as a comparative descriptor of old Hollywood films from the same era that strictly follow the plot formula (insert action story template here!). The incoherence is what makes Kinugasa’s stand alone because the discontinued style of the filming and writing is purposeful. There is a reason why it is this way.
But as we know from our friend Freud and his writings on psychology in the theater, if a piece of art is too incoherent, too out there for the human brain to wrap around, the art is lost. This was my primary fear: that the art in A Page of Madness is lost because of the disjointed film style and lack of script. But upon more reflection, I think the film is much more artistic than what we see at first glance.
The film is not without its major cultural and artistic contexts. Perhaps the most evident is the fact that the group of writers, directors, and actors responsible for the creation of A Page of Madness consisted of an Avant Garde group in Japan in the mid-20s called Shinkankakuha, or School of New Perceptions. This group focused entirely on exploring new impressions or new perceptions, moving away from naturalistic impression, and focusing on the interior impressions of the characters they were working with.
Secondly, the Japanese creators of the film clearly were aware of and influenced by the Avant Garde films of Europe in the mid-20s: please enter, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The German Expressionist movement had an enormous influence on films during this era, and this is not lost when looking at the film, even for the first time.
Looking at the cultural context, this film is so Japanese in its narrative; the discontinued film style reflects the Japanese tradition of a lacking between cause and effect. What we really see when watching A Page of Madness is a juxtapositioning of scenes that are not causally related but might aesthetically be beautiful to place beside each other. The outer cause-and-effect does not always match the inner. This is challenging for the Western mind that keeps the action story template rooted in cultural context.
Finally, the ingrained Japanese conflict between obligation and desire is present in the film. The most evident example of this conflict is seen in the flashback by the husband as he ponders the sailing days of his youth toward the beginning of the film. We see him and large shipping vessels, particularly one with a Canadian insignia, flashing by, but then the scenes immediately cut to viewing the members of the man’s family and his wife as she lies in the asylum, indicating to us the conflict of the man’s abandonment of his obligation to care for his family to become a sailor. We don’t know the depth of this conflict, if the man needed to become a sailor so he could financially care for his family or if he abandoned them entirely and this led to the wife’s madness, but the obligation v. desire conflict is clearly an open wound to the characters in the film.
A Page of Madness isn’t necessarily the easiest film to take in, though it does a have a creepy feel to it as we inch closer to Halloween. The disjointed, all-over-the-place film style, lack of dialogue, and complex cultural contexts are not always what people want to consider when they just get home from a ten-hour shift. But I think it is an important film considering its age and how relevant it remains to today’s society, and because I care way too deeply about issues of translation, the title alone drives home the brilliancy of this film.
From the Japanese into English, there are two ways to translate the title; the first is A Page of Madness. The second is A Page Out of Order, leaving us to wonder if the film is really a descent into madness or just the pages of life left out of order.
Some sources and interesting material:
Wikipedia! The source of all knowledge: A Page of Madness