When we think of Japanese Horror (J Horror) we think of movies like Ju-on (‘The Grudge’) Ringu (‘The Ring’) and classics like Kwaidan but those we’re dealing with the supernatural, things that some will feel they have a zero and donuts chance of encountering or telling themselves “It’s just a movie.” But an experimental film in 1926 took everything a step further by touching on the subconscious fear of the audience, reality itself. The film, A Page of Madness was directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa and released in Japan in 1926 and was feared lost after WWII till Kinugasa rediscovered the film in 1971 in a storehouse that he hid it in.
The silent film has received a lot of mix reviews, a lot of the negative ones are based on the fact that they literally don’t know what’s going on. Unlike most western silent films movie buffs are used to, Japanese silent films did not have intertitles, we now call them title cards where the title of the film is shown but during the silent film era these are cards that appear on the screen showing the dialogue. In Japanese theatres in the 1920s when silent films where shown, a live performer called a Benshi would act as a voiceover narrator and actor often acting as a translator for western silent films that were shown in Japan. Like many theatres showing silent films, live music would be performed. What also adds to the confusion of the film to most is the fact that nearly a third of the film is missing.
Now onto the film itself; the story is about a man who becomes a janitor at an asylum where unbeknown to the staff the new janitor’s wife is a patient and he only took the job to be near her. His motivation for being there was brought on by guilt he feels for how he treated her, he was a sailor and not home often and when he was he was cruel to her. At some point in their marriage, the wife either nearly drowns or drowns their infant child which is the point of no return for the wife’s psyche. The man is visited by his daughter who is set to be married but both fear her fiancé’s family won’t allow the marriage if they find out the mother is institutionalized, a taboo in Japanese culture at the time, if one family member is mentally ill in some way, it means others in the family are too. At one point of the film that’s most memorable to most westerners watching it is a scene where the man fantasizes about giving all the patients in the asylum Noh (Nō) masks (masks traditionally worn in stage plays depicting all sorts of different characters) to wear, most of the masks depicting people smiling or being happy.
The key part of the film that makes it unique is there’s times where the audience is seeing the world through the eyes of the mentally infirmed, putting the audience in the shoes of the patients forcing the audience to understand what the world looks like to them resulting in why they act the way they do, making the audience pity them, at least, that’s how I saw it. If you would like to see A Page of Madness you can on youtube (link provided) but I suggest reading the synopsis first, the folks over at tvtropes.org have a really detailed one. If you’re a fan of avant-garde films or J horror, I strongly recommend this film.