Classic Review/Month of Horror: A Page of Madness

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Dir. Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928

IMDB lists this as horror, which is how it ended up on my list of films to watch for October, but it’s not really a horror film. It’s as much of a horror film as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon which either means that it isn’t (well, maybe that film is too), or (perhaps more likely) that the affinity between horror and the avant-garde suggests a deeper than superficial affinity between the two. And Deren, who was a dancer, is a nice reference point in approaching the avant-garde and dance-filled A Page of Madness. 

The film was part of the New Sensationalist movement in Japan which, from what I understand, privileged conveying sensory experience over description, or the sensation of something instead of laying out a scene in logical causality. It was heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and to lesser extents by Dada and futurism. Kiugasa’s film also bears hallmarks of having been influenced by French impressionism (the film’s use of dissolves and overlapping images is reminiscent of Jean Vigo) as well as Eisensteinian montage. While that last sentence might be true, at the same time I think it also was lamentably Western; there are undoubtably native Japanese traditions at work here that I’m not familiar with or don’t as readily recognize but that I probably should try to find out more about.

The film was thought to be lost until it was discovered by its filmmaker in the 1970s. Roughly 1/3 of the film is missing, and viewers of the film in 1928 would have seen the film with a Benshi providing commentary and descriptions. While ideally we’d be able to watch the complete film in the way it was initially intended to be seen, the missing information enhances the confusion and avant-garde sensibilities of a film that is already about mental disintegration and confusion. The simple story is that a husband takes a job as a janitor to be close to his wife who is a patient in a mental hospital. Through flashbacks we get some idea of why she was there, and we see the husband try to rehabilitate her by taking her outside, but the plot isn’t the primary concern (though the plot is credited to future Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata). If the term “movie” is a colloquialism for “motion picture” than few movies have ever been as much of a movie, as in motion, as this film. It’s pure movement on every level and in every element: the bodies in kinetic motion (the janitor’s wife’s dancing is incredible), the harsh set design, the contrast between light and shadows, between the scenes through increasingly rhythmic editing, in transitions from abrupt pans (perhaps the most underutilized camera move in film), with juxtaposing overlapping images, and also notably in the masterful score which was added and overseen by Kinugasa himself when he rediscovered the film.

That last paragraph isn’t to suggest that this movie is only a formal exercise. In the traces of a plot that guide the formalist poetry of the film there are deep and troubling questions being posed and fears expressed about subjective states, of memory, and trauma. I think that perhaps the most exceptional thing a film can do is to provide its audience with a singular experience and few films fully utilize the entire toolbox of film form to create a singular experience as A Page of Madness.

 

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