Editor’s note: excuse the academic flavour of this brief essay originally written for a Japanese Cinema course last year. While I tend to side on not sharing much of my academic work online, I can’t resist bringing some attention to a criminally under-seen silent gem like A Page of Madness
As a medium with intangible, transcendent qualities that express unhindered emotion, cinema has always excelled as a vessel through which to explore insanity. Such an extreme psychological state, in its’ horrible allurement, is best dealt with by cinema which can use mise-en-scène and formal techniques to capture delusional and/or demented perspectives. The tradition of insanity in cinema traces back nearly a hundred years, and some of the most timeless silent films remain fascinating in part for their portrayal of psychotic characters. A Page of Madness (original title: Kurutta Ippêji, Kinugasa Teinosuke, 1926) is one of the most effective treatments of this subject matter, eighty-five years after its’ creation. Kinugasa utilizes a plethora of cinematic techniques in order to capture a subjective experience of madness. A Page of Madness has clear traces of German Expressionism, a movement that was in full swing at the time, as well as the frenetic montage one would find in contemporary Soviet films, like those directed by Sergei Eisenstein, whose works established defining principles of editing. A Page of Madness does not neatly fit into either of these categories, but shared attributes with both styles are undeniable. Commonly, it is likened to the classic German film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, (1920, Robert Weine). This is an apt comparison, but only if we go so far. A Page of Madness is a wholly unique and enigmatic work of art that achieves its’ power through a combined application of aspects from the aforementioned styles.
There are many ways to represent insanity in film. As far as portraying a subjective experience of a psychotic point of view, the two ways to express this formally are with mise-en-scène and montage. However, within each of these broad formal categories are infinite stylistic strategies. Caligari almost exclusively uses mise-en-scène, while A Page of Madness straddles both. By 1926, many Japanese viewers would have already been familiar with German Expressionism, which had been received successfully in Japanese cinemas (Ritchie, 86). The movement is defined by its’ favouring of emotional truth, rather than realism, established by overtly stylized sets and lighting. In the film’s opening, the most Expressionist sequence, we observe a woman dancing in front of a mysterious spinning cylinder and a surrealistic background. She gracefully moves about in a beautiful cloak in this spacious room. Then the camera tracks back to reveal bars and it fades to a cramped cell in an asylum, revealing the dancer to be a mental patient. As we move from the dancer’s subjective perspective to “reality” we tap into one of the driving undercurrents of the film. In her mind, she appears content and there is something almost precious about her delirious vision whereas the cell is a harsh reality of imprisonment. In other words, we see her in a state of free expression and then in a state of oppression, suggesting an allegorical entry point into the film. Even scarier than the mentally ill is the institution that imprisons them, something you cannot quite put your finger on that makes the “status quo” a larger threat than the riotous chaos of the patients. This definitely draws a direct comparison to Caligari, not only in terms of style but also theme.
In From Caligari to Hitler, it is argued that Caligari expresses anxieties about German authoritarian society (Kracauer, 67). In 1925, the Japanese government introduced the Peace Preservation Law in order to prohibit dissent. A Page of Madness taps into the Japanese collective unconscious, and is a product of this repression. This makes the film’s conclusion especially haunting, when the protagonist, a custodian at the asylum, seems to simply accept his position, continuing to wipe the floor. Thus, the relationship with Caligari is thematic, even more so than stylistic.
Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage has little concern for spatial and temporal logic and is invested in generating meaning through the juxtaposition of images and their rhythmic succession. This strategy can be observed in every sequence of A Page of Madness in which rhythm and tone take precedence over traditional continuity. Kinugasa applies this method to create a disturbing tempo and an intensely emotional experience that places the viewer in an empathic relationship with the characters. The succession of super impositions, the rapid cutting, the considerable range of angles, the highly conceived framing and the mobile camera which frequently tracks and pans all place an emphasis that actually establishes a deeper relationship with Soviet montage theory than with German Expressionism, which tinges rather than permeates the film.
In conclusion, A Page of Madness has such a potent effect because of its’ uses of Expressionism and Soviet montage theory, a combination which makes it a more fulfilling artistic work of cinema than the somewhat comparable Caligari. Kinugasa’s film is a testament to film form’s ability to express subjective, psychologically damaged perspectives. The asylum has been a ubiquitous locale in movies, and between the walls we find dark mysteries that compel us and can express our inner anxieties. It remains a popular and engrossing subject as the cinema continues to find new ways to explore it—although, looking back at A Page of Madness, it crosses one’s mind that perhaps Kinugasa found the purest way to approach insanity, in which form and madness are so intertwined that they become difficult to separate.