Friday, 15 March 2013

Kinugasa + In the Nursery, Barbican… A Page of Madness (1926)

Masuo Inoue
Just when you think you’ve seen it all a silent film comes along and knocks lazy preconceptions into touch or rather, in the case of this film, disorientates and then beats them severely around the head with a mop!

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (狂った一頁 or Kurutta Ippeji) is so accomplished, so fully formed, that it appears to have come from nowhere – standing apart from American and European sensibilities it borrows elements and then re-interprets them in the most technically proficient and – naturally – Japanese way. It’s an uncomfortable and searingly honest film featuring a dazzling array of camera trickery and a structure that places considerable demands on the audience.

Think David Lynch meets Abel Gance via FW Murnau (Kinugasa chose The Last Laugh as his favourite film…)   and you’d be part of the way there but there’s an narrative integrity that you wouldn’t find in some contemporary avant-garde cinema… a clear storyline that just needs to be interpreted and without the aid of a single inter-title.

Much effort has been devoted to interpreting the film and yet watching it cold and without fore-knowledge of the story you have to make sense of what you can in those moments. I’ve subsequently re-watched it and read a bit more around the plot which feels very much like cheating… the film works on a number of levels and first impressions sit the deepest.

Viewers in 1926 may not have had to work so hard. There has been debate over whether the film would have been accompanied by a Benshi – a film narrator, but a 1977 interview with Kinugasa confirms that one was used: there is a specific meaning and the story isn’t a purely “surreal” or impressionistic tale.

There’s also a suggestion from scholar Alexander Jacoby, in his book A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, that the director re-edited the film on its rediscovery to remove more traditional narrative sections and to conform more precisely with contemporary avant-garde perceptions. (A review of the book can be found on the Midnight Eye site. Not everything is ever as it seems, it seems…).

Screen shot: Yoshie Nakagawa
The film was playing as part of the London Barbican’s wonder: art and science on the brain season of events and featured expert  live accompaniment from Sheffield electronica duo In the Nursery – who provided such a memorable soundtrack to Elvey’s Hindle Wakes - they’re nothing if not versatile, as this film could hardly be more different.

A Page of Madness is based on a story treatment by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, probably amongst a number of others… It is set in a mental asylum where Kinugasa sets out the interior lives of the tormented inmates alongside their external realities.

Eiko Minami
There’s a ballet dancer (Eiko Minami) who furiously dances in her cell whilst in her own mind she is on an elaborate stage with the strangest set design: a giant furry ball that spins continuously behind her. She’s the signal for emotional shifts in the story: almost like a choreographic Greek chorus of one.

In the next door cell is a middle aged woman (Yoshie Nakagawa), tortured by her murder (or near murder – opinions seem to differ) of her child. She’s in contorted agony and unable to help herself even when offered the chance.

Unbeknownst to all, the woman’s husband (a truly amazing performance from Masuo Inoue) is employed as the asylum’s janitor. He took the job to help his wife but she looks beyond salvation and yet naturally, being a film audience, we hope for something...

Yoshie Nakagawa
Their daughter (Ayako Iijima) arrives to inform her mother that she is getting engaged and yet she didn’t know her father was working there… there follows arguments and dreams and what may be an attempted break out. But the wife will not leave and the Janitor is frustrated…drifting into a reverie that may be the continuation of an earlier dream.

Ayako Iijima
What happens and what is merely dreamt and… does it matter? One of the clearest signals in the film is when the Janitor calms some of the inmates by attaching Noh masks to their faces. In an instant they are calmed and, like the masks, you feel they are smiling. Without the mask of a smile inner thoughts are revealed all too readily.

The cast is a very strong one with Nakagawa presenting an especially harrowing take on the desolate mindscape of this woman who has, literally, lost everything.

But it is Masuo Inoue who holds the film and encapsulates the meaning… a very naturalistic performer his technique is one of the purest expressions of Lillian Gish’s stated aim to be never caught “acting” by the audience. He anchors the story and provides us with an identifiable “hero” and his shifts into hysteria are all the more shocking for this.  But does he lose it or does he dream it?

Kinugasa directs with great invention and dexterity. He borrows from everyone he could in order to show these tormented “inner lives”, deploying the full range of his influences in his own unique manner… There are extensive dolly shots, montage and double/triple exposures, “whip pans” – you’ll know the instant you see one what that means - and spotlighting. As the writer Vlada Petric stated, the film’s “cinematic structure includes virtually every film device known at the time…”

Triple exposure
It is so well controlled and serves the story well but, as Kinugasa said later, this “…was less important than technical experimentation: tracking shots, close-ups, rapid montage, flashbacks, dissolves, irises, etc. In this film I used almost every avant-garde technique.” 

Given the problems of understanding the story in its present form – even the 75 minute 2007 restoration - musical accompaniment takes on an additional importance. In the Nursery did a sterling job of “explaining” the action, the shifts from reality to dream… guiding our emotional response to actions that may be random and may be fantasy. This takes finesse and the delicate touch of experience – you can imagine all kinds of free-form “solutions” to A Page of Madness’ soundtrack but this film demands a disciplined response.

As it was, the boys provided the perfect musical “Benshi”.

A dream winner
Sadly A Page of Madness is not available on DVD except in a cheap-shot 3D version which bills it as a horror film. Hopefully this longer restored version will be available in more respectful circumstances at some point – c’mon Criterion!

In the meantime you can watch the 60 minute version on grainy YouTube and try to sync the In The Nursery CD as best you can!

There's a fascinating interview with Kinugasa expert Mariann Lewinsky also on the Midnight Eye site.

Some hope by the end?

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