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New Perception in A Page of Madness
New Perception in A Page of Madness
Special Feature──Research on the development of Pre-War Japanese Avant-garde Cinema: Discussing Avant-garde Cinema in Germany, France, and Soviet Union (IV)

Translated by Chang Chun-Yu (張竣昱)


According to Comparative History of Japanese, American, and European Cinema, the propagation of European avant-garde films in Japan lies approximately between 1923 and 1928, not far behind predecessors in Europe. Directors obviously influenced by these films includes Kiyohiko Ushihara (牛原虚彦) and Daisuke Ito (伊藤大輔), yet films as such are not preserved. Besides, these historical studies have suggested that these films are mainly focused on plot, formal experiment may only take place in limited parts if there is any. Fortunately, there is a candidate, perhaps more significant than the others, Teinosuke Kinugasa (衣笠貞之助), whose two avant-garde films, A Page of Madness (狂った一頁, 1926) and Jujiro (十字路, 1928), are left and widely spread. Traces in some works of later generations may indicate the influences of these two films.

Much of Kinugasa’s works before 1945 disappeared in a studio fire. Therefore, researchers may infer that Jujiro was shot right after A Page of Madness, and thus creation of the former was motivated by success of box office of the latter. As a matter of fact, however, Jujiro is of much more conservative nature than A Page of Madness. Thus, it is more legitimate to say that he might tend to keep experiments, but “alleviated” some radical elements in Jujiro on condition of marketing as a result. It is even clear if we take Kinugasa’s words into account; it might be true that he did not see much of European films in his time, but he once said that he was influenced by F.W. Murnau’s film, The Last Laugh (German: Der letzte Mann (The Last Man)) (1924), which Alfred Hitchcock labeled as the only one film of no need for intertitle. The Last Laugh is a notable film of Expressionism, yet it is less of formalism and focuses more on plot, performance, and emotional expression. There is no intertitle in the film, except for one that is embedded in a prop (that the aged protagonist is relegated from a doorman to a washroom attendant).

No Intertitle … and plot?

We can identify in this existing 71-minute film a few characters and its plot. The protagonist is a janitor of an asylum, where his wife is to be medically treated (but without any improvement). Another one seems to be his daughter to be married (and there may be another little kid). Also, a female dancer and patient often dancing in a ward (seems more like that of a prison), a spectacle for the janitor, medical staff, and other patients. The main action is the janitor looks like taking his wife away with a stolen key, but assaults her instead upon seeing his daughter and her fiancé, which may indicate some possible connections of “taking his wife away” and “daughter’s wedding.”

However, even though this action concerning the janitor’s wife and daughter is the most obvious one, it appears nearly at the middle of the whole movie. Building characters, behaviors, the world and its logic within takes almost half of the film. For an experimental film trying to convey a story, it costs much greater to remove intertitles, be it explanative or lines of characters.

Perception of New Perception School

The screenwriter Kinugasa cooperated with was a young writer, Yasunari Kawabata (川端康成), the core figure of later Shinkankakuha (新感覚派, New Perception School). Kawabata might bring his aesthetic ideal into the film. The ideal of the School can be well summarized as a notion of a monolithic world where self and other, subject and object, and all things are identified as one. Writers of New Perception School have great sensibility of atmosphere, sentiments, and emotions. Their works tend to manifest epiphany by employing metaphors and symbols to elaborate on a feeling in a split second, like peeking the ultimate truth through a crevice. Novel perception and vivid expression in these works often leaves readers in wonder.

The notion can also be seen in one of Kawabata’s novel, Sound of  the Mountain (1949). Here, we take an example when the protagonist Shingo hears sound of mountain for the first time:

Gripping the shutter, he looked toward the [cherry] tree. He could not tell whether the locust had lodged there or flown on. There was a vast depth to the moonlit night, stretching far on either side.

Though August had only begun, autumn insects were already singing.

He thought he could detect a dripping of dew from leaf to leaf.

Then he heard the sound of the mountain.

It was a windless night. The moon was near full, but in the moist, sultry air the fringe of trees that outlined the mountain was blurred. They were motionless, however.

Not a leaf on the fern by the veranda was stirring.

In these mountain recesses of Kamakura, the sea could sometimes be heard at night. Shingo wondered if he might have heard the sound of the sea. But no—it was the mountain.

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in his ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching.

This significant “act” features alternation of focus on the subject and the object: namely, outer and inner scene of the subject, and distant view and close-up of the object. Shingo’s sight of the cherry tree is out of subjective, and even a bit philosophical inquiry (“whether the locust had lodged there”), and what reflect back on the subject is his musings on moon night. But obviously, what is remarkable here is the magnification of auditory perception; in other words, the focus here is sound. The sound of dripping dew on leaves cannot be covered by singing of cicadas, as in Jacques Tati’s or Jerry Lewis’s film. Sound shows effect of quick zoom between close-up (dew) and distant view (sea), or of superimposition of the two (showing in film language that things happen simultaneously, or to exemplify their affinity), for the former being at the moment and the latter the past. Also, the sound appears internally (“ringing in his ears”) and externally (“it was the mountain … a rumbling of the earth”). Beginning with an action (“gripping the shutter”) and ending with inconcrete perception (“was suddenly afraid … that death was approaching”), this act manifests the penetrability and fluidity of an object. The shutter cannot block sensational reaction the rain triggers, and the chill. Significance of symbols cannot be completed without internalization.

Avant-Garde In What Sense?

Ambience of a play comes from interrelationship of an object under a sight and a seeing subject and connotations within. This feature is more like a practice of Kuleshov effect, rather than Impressionism as in Abel Gance’s (in La roue and its subsequent influences) or Jean Epstein’s work (endless superimposition in his Cœur fidèle, English title The  Faithful Heart, 1923).

【Click here】The Kuleshov effect in Kean (1924)

For example, these scenes set in bistro in Kean (1924) imitate fast-forward montages of La roue, which actually has great impact on this film. After a sequence of impressions showing passion and ecstasy, the drunk protagonist Kean seems to be bumped by a superimposed carriage in his illusion and falls down.

【Click here】The Kean’s illusion in Kean (1924).

Among the four cuts at the end of this part, there is a “wipe” dividing the screen in the first cut, which may have influenced Abel Gance in return. But superimpositions in the second and third cut are almost the same with those in A Page of Madness, only in which the car is imposed in the asylum, patients lying on the ground that might be hurt during a riot, thus the car seems to run over their bodies.

【Click here】A “wipe” dividing the screen in A Page of Madness.

Another example is in La Galerie des Monstres (1924). With aid of quick, dense montage, these scenes of stage performance give strong impression overall.

【Click here】The scenes of stage performance in La Galerie des Monstres (1924).

The dancer on the stage wearing black-white checked costume and painted face is the protagonist. Obviously, this style of wearing is from German Expressionism, symbolizing his agony (that the fat woman in the ninth picture above pestering him, who has wife already) by virtue of appearances. Similarly, the opening of A Page of Madness are shots on music instruments in order to build a sense of rhythm, by means of superimposition of course.

【Click here】The opening scene from A Page of Madness

In the first picture above, a photo of a dancer torn into pieces on the wall of the ward/cell is as the same composition as this scene of female dancing, in which she never leaves the “little stage” consisted of shadow and light by the bar. These elements are certainly of Expressionism. The superimposition is from Impressionism, which appears in La Galerie des Monstres, where the threatening fat woman is superimposed on left side of a little carriage the Riquet couple lives in, and manager of the circus, who covets Ricquet’s wife, Ralda, is on the right. It is worth noting that Kawabata’s primary idea of A Page of Madness was set in a circus, while Kinugasa replaced it with an asylum, and personally stayed in one for months.

【Click here】The Superimposition in La Galerie des Monstres.

If we see in one perspective and compare A Page of Madness to Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, all the “distorted” in the film will be easily attributed to subjective view of the janitor as a father. But Kinugasa chooses to end the film in a calm and daily scene, as if all the movements in A Page of Madness are embodiments of a father’s agony before daughter’s marriage. In this sense, superimposition of the daughter’s wedding limousine on patients on the ground would be of more significance: his wife’s madness may greatly affect the marriage.

From perspective of the literary idea of New Perception School, superimpositions broadly applied in the film function differently in different occasions, but the potential of relatedness, and even interchangeability, of the subject and the object still exists.

【Click here】The Superimposition in A Page of Madness.

Kammerspielfilm and Alternation of Interior and Exterior Space

Kinugasa’s introduction of stream of consciousness into his films is a remedy of his minimalization (or destruction) of the narratives, but it also triggers annoyance. The method of stream of consciousness is not accepted and popularized until the mid-1950s.

It is a great strategy to replace the story set from a circus into an asylum. For one thing, it is free of some scenes hard to film, such as outdoor and crowd scenes, and also easy to cost down. For another, the Kammerspielfilm allows any experimental effort to be timely out of the limitation coming from audience’s concern. The alternation of interior and exterior space is more capable of highlighting the perfect blending the two.

The form of Kammerspielfilm is of greatly help of jettisoning norms of narratives, including the arrangement of shots, especially shots alternating along with characters’ sights. In short, if scenery can be enclosed or limited (and withdraw other characters or elements if necessary), it is possible to execute and extend experiment of ignorance of characters’ sights.

That is why Carl Th. Dreyer insisted on Kammerspielfilm. From The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which compared by European critics with Kinugasa’s Jujiro completed at the same year, Dreyer has expanded range of experiment: staggering characters’ sights in order to construct an intangible, illusory, immeasurable space and absolute off-site, embodying invisible mental sphere.

In A Page of Madness, for instance, when the daughter goes to the asylum to see her mother (and may mention her own marriage), a pivot point supporting the three different focuses on father, mother and their daughter are almost impossible to find; compared with that on the father and daughter on one side, the shot on the mother is not from a subjective angle, not one from any character’s perspective, whereas viewer of this film cannot misidentify whom the characters see.

【Click here】Three different focuses on father, mother and their daughter, in A Page of Madness.


 

  • This article is an inviting article from ET@T’s criticism project “Archive Eyes: Taiwan’s Avant-Garde Culture and Its International Perspective” (2018-2020), which was subsidized from “Visual Arts Criticism” project in 2018, by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF).
  • Sponsors of “Visual Arts Criticism” project: The National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), Winsing Arts Foundation, and Ms. So Mei-Chi.

Editor: Yeh Hsing-Jou
Proofreading: Yizai Seah

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肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin
肥內(王志欽)Wang Chih-Chin
電影文字修行者,畢生研究歐弗斯和小津影片。著有《在巴洛克與禪之間尋找電影的空缺:馬克斯歐弗斯與小津安二郎電影中美學的呈現》(2014)與《尋常——小津的女系詩學》(2020)。