Thursday, September 10, 2015

Kurutta Ippêji (Kinugasa Productions, National Film Art, Shin Kankaku-ha Eiga Renmei Productions, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a fascinating movie I’d recorded recently from TCM, part of their “Silent Sunday Showcase,” a Japanese film called Kurutta Ippêji, translated as “A Page of Madness,” made in 1926 as an independent production on an ultra-low budget by director Teinosuke Kinugawa (whose career lasted until 1966; his most famous film is probably Gate of Hell, a samurai drama from 1955 that’s notable as the first Japanese movie ever made in color). The page on it gives a 70-minute running time but the TCM print ran just under an hour, and the first thing we saw — after an English-language title announcing that the George Eastman House had done the restoration (from a print Kinugawa had found in a shed on his property in 1971) — was credits exclusively in Japanese characters, with no attempt at translation. I groaned at the prospect of having to watch a movie with intertitles in untranslated Japanese and trying as best I could to figure out what was going on, but it turned out there was no need to translate intertitles because Kinugawa hadn’t used any. It was a long-standing dream of many silent directors to make a movie so self-explanatory visually it wouldn’t need titles, and at least two — Charlie Chaplin and F. W. Murnaucame close. Kurutta Ippêji, which TCM double-billed with the 1919 German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari because it had similar settings — an insane asylum and a carnival — and because both films were stylized treatments of human madness, turned out to be an abstract movie.

The plot is officially summarized as “A man takes a job at an asylum with hopes of freeing his imprisoned wife,” and certainly that’s the essence of what is happening, but so much more in this film is happening besides that it’s not altogether that easy to follow. The film opens with a sequence of a young woman in a black dress doing a manic dance, and Kinugawa pulls back his camera to reveal that she’s in an asylum cell. She’s played by Yoshie Nakagawa and is billed on as “Servent’s Wife” — is that a misspelling of “Servant” or is that actually supposed to be her name? — and she’s been placed in the asylum for supposedly committing a terrible crime. Through a brief flashback it’s hinted that the crime is the murder of her own daughter (Ayako Iijima). Her husband (Masuo Inoue), the closest the film has to a central character, is bound and determined to break her out of the institution, though it’s not clear whether he believes in her innocence or he just doesn’t want his wife in an institution no matter what she’s done. The film is full of other characters, including a nurse dressed in traditional Japanese garb (most of the people are dressed more or less in Western style) who bears a striking resemblance to the young Yoko Ono, and a doctor at the asylum who wears glasses and looks like Richard Loo in all those World War II-era movies in which the Chinese-American Loo had to play dastardly Japanese villains. One remarkable aspect about Kurutta Ippêji is how thoroughly it blurs the lines between sanity and madness; made well before the writings of Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing raised the question of how we socially define “sanity” and arbitrarily declare that some people have it and some people don’t, Kinugasa and his collaborator, Yasunari Kawabata (who wrote the short story on which Kurutta Ippêji is based and co-wrote the script with Kinugawa, Minoru Inuzuka and Bankô Sawada), thoroughly blur the line between the sane and the insane and in the end, of course, the husband ends up committed to the institution, having gone insane himself (or at least behaving in a manner that gets him declared insane by that sinister-looking doctor) — much like the hero of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1964) infiltrates a mental institution to investigate a murder and ends up committed himself.

The film has sometimes been considered a Japanese Caligari, which it is and it isn’t; it’s shot in a highly stylized pictorial manner owing a lot to both German Expressionism and traditional Japanese art, but the sets are realistic-looking (unlike those in Caligari) and the actors wear normal clothes instead of flamboyantly unreal costumes. According to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, Kinugawa originally intended to set the film in a carnival but decided that would have been too close to Caligari — though a carnival scene does take place and it’s apparently supposed to represent a flashback to the happier days of the husband, wife and daughter before she killed the girl (maybe) and got locked up in the madhouse. For that matter, Caligari opened and closed in an asylum, and the main part of the film was presented as the delusional flashback of one of the central characters. Kurutta Ippêji is about as far from mainstream filmmaking as one could imagine, then and now — though it’s a clear ancestor of the “underground” movie style of the 1950’s and 1960’s (I joked that the makers of those films thought they were being so innovative — and Charles said, “Yeah, and so do the ones making them now!”) — my hope that we were going to see a “typical” Japanese film of the late silent era was quickly dashed — and yet it’s utterly haunting even though it’s not always easy to tell what’s supposed to be going on (my synopsis is based on my own reading of the film and is somewhat contradicted by the page, which lists different actresses playing the dancer and the wife) and some of its greatest moments — notably a madman prophet who lectures a group of other asylum inmates and gets applauded by them until the orderlies come and drag him away — have very little to do with the main plot. Apparently Kinugawa shot this on an ultra-low budget, with little money available for lighting (he painted the parts of the sets that wouldn’t be seen on camera silver so they’d reflect light and therefore boost the level of illumination he could get) and with the actors doubling as the crew, and according to an “Trivia” poster he came up with a film that totally confused the distributors. Apparently in Japan in 1926 there were two sets of movie theatres — ones that exclusively showed Japanese product and ones that showed foreign films — and the theatres that showed Japanese movies rejected it, but the ones that ordinarily showed just foreign movies embraced it and it became a surprise hit.