Home > Entertainment > Book
  print button email button

Sunday, April 5, 2009

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Deciphering 'A Page of Madness'

Avant-garde or melodrama, naturalism or modernism, literature or cinema, Teinosuke Kinugasa's film has baffled many a critic


A PAGE OF MADNESS: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, by Aaron Gerow. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies/University of Michigan, 2008, 224 pp., 22 illustrations, $50 (cloth), $22 (paper)

Teinosuke Kinugasa's "A Page of Madness" ("Kurutta Ichipeiji," 1926) was long thought lost. Only some 75 years later did the discovery of the missing negative allow the picture to be finally viewed by the present generation. At the same time there emerged a critical need to evaluate it because it seemed a somewhat strange entertainment.

Nominally scripted by Yasunari Kawabata, directed by Kinugasa, a shimpa drama specialist formerly an onnagata (female role specialist), it seemed stylistically advanced. It was composed of well over 800 shots, many more and often much shorter than those of the average film (estimated at between five and seven seconds during this period), with some scenes only a few frames in length.

These sketched the story of a man who takes the job of janitor in an insane asylum in order to be near his wife whose madness he feels responsible for. The asylum was vividly rendered but conventional narrative was so ignored that the picture was said to be impossible to understand. It was thus early agreed that here was an avant-garde film, one from outside the industry, made by a group of youngsters (the average age of staff and cast was 25) who created a personal and poetic film, with Kinugasa as an early auteur.

Since stylistic revolutions come from outside, critics noticed that this film and the seminal "Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" (Robert Weine, 1920) shared an insane asylum locale, recalled the experiments of Abel Gance's "La Roue" (1923) and the fact that Kinugasa had several times seen F.W. Murnau's "The Last Laugh" (1924) and had cited it as the "best artistic film" of 1925 in a magazine poll.

In general it was thought Kinugasa was influenced by the French avant-garde film (impressionistic), not the German (expressionistic), and that the editing could not have profited from famous Russian examples since the first Soviet film was not imported into Japan until 1927. This early reading of the picture is still with us, but the burden of Gerow's often brilliant book is to show us that there are other readings.

One is that the Japanese audience was not all that baffled by the imported extremes of impression/expression since they had already encountered these in foreign film imports. And since one of the qualities of the Japanese audience was to find foreign influences as merely "foreign," the differences between avant-garde and avant-derriere are not useful.

The Kinugasa "experimental" film is also larded with scenes that could have come straight from old-fashioned shimpa, and if this is not now apparent, it is because several such scenes are no longer in the available prints. (The original print was 103 minutes, the existing print at the National Film Center is 78 minutes.) The lost scenes are, however, in the extant scenario. Gerow here translates them and very shimpa-like they indeed are.

Other readings are possible. In his autobiography Kinugasa says he decided to make a film about the insane after having seen "the entourage of a certain noble gentleman," one whom "secret whisperings" identified as Yoshihito, who later became the Emperor Taisho. The film could thus also be read as political allegory.

Gerow, who is just as interested in film theory as he is in "A Page of Madness," says reading the film as melodrama or avant-garde, as naturalism or modernism, as literature or cinema is a tempting prospect. But "we would be remiss to simply impose an external privileging on a film that complexly and sometimes contradictorily navigates between such poles."

His advice is to follow the film's lead and ourselves navigate among the various definitions. A single perspective cannot do justice to Kinugasa's picture. Rather, it is important for us "to understand the ways in which people have tried to deal with this text, as well as our own role, through reading this film, in continuing the debates on cinema and modernity that 'A Page of Madness' originally posed."

This Gerow firmly accomplishes giving us the fullest account so far of the film and, particularly, of its reception. Heretofore the most satisfactory have been those of Vlada Petric and Marianne Lewinsky. That of Audie Bock, in some ways the fullest, has never been published and hence does not appear in Gerow's otherwise complete bibliography.

It is indeed fortunate we have this book since our chances of seeing the film itself are slight. Besides the isolated print in the National Film Center, there are in Japan only two rentable versions — identical but one 16 mm and one 35 mm. So far as I know "A Page of Madness" has never been commercially available on VHS or DVD.



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.