A Page of Madness
May 7, 2021
1 Hr., 18 Mins.
einosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926) is disorienting from the outset. Before we’ve met any of its principal characters we’re caught in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. Kôhei Sugiyama’s cameras dizzily hurtle between different surfaces violently pelted with water: gutters overwhelmed, car wheels swimming through temporarily rivered roads, windows smacked. Then we enter a room where a woman, in front of a
spinning ball decoration, dances blissfully in an ornate costume. Are we watching a show? Sort of — but it isn’t what we think it is. The camera pulls back; this woman is actually inside a cell of some kind. After the pretty costume gives way for a simple black dress and the camera takes in some surrounding architecture, we notice the concert hall has acidified into what appears to be an asylum. This woman, we find, is one of many people there lost in their heads.
A Page of Madness never straightens out. Its images continuously crash into each other. Sometimes they pile, like a see-through photo stack. Realities disintegrate into fantasy even when we think we can trust what we’re seeing. Although there is a plot in the film — it follows a janitor (Masao Inoue) who has taken a job at the asylum because his wife (Yoshie Nakagawa) is a patient there, ostensibly driven to madness because of abuse he now feels sorry for inflicting — the movie, though certainly having an emotional pull, primarily seems most interested in functioning as an exercise in artful haziness. It’s sensorial at its most extreme. All horror movies in some way want to unsettle us. A Page of Madness goes a step further, marrying narrative uncertainty (there is no spelled-out dialogue, and character connections are guessed) with a prismatic, restless visual style. Respite eludes us. The movie’s very stylistic presentation, more than its narrative substance, is what unnerves.
A Page of Madness is a dream state faithfully adapted into a movie. It’s a natural extension of the ethos of the Shinkankakuha, a literary group obsessed with subjectivity that had several members collaborate with Kinugasa on the movie. (To be fair, some of the film’s misty incomprehensibility can in large part be blamed on how it had originally run 103 minutes rather than the more widely seen 78. Speculation that Kinugasa did some additional editing years after the official release without disclosing it thrives.) A Page of Madness is one of the most visually innovative movies of its era; tragically, it dawdled in obscurity for nearly 50 years. After a handful of screenings in Tokyo in the summer of 1926, the commercially unpopular movie essentially disappeared. It was thought lost (like most Japanese silent movies) until Kinugasa discovered in 1971 a copy of it in his old house — a decidedly happy ending for a movie that substantively never feels so finite. A