That is the simple premise of the avant-garde film A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji) made in 1926 by young director Kinugasa Teinosuke (1896-1982). A Page of Madness was long thought lost, like so may other films from the 1920s, until in 1971 the director found a copy of the negative in his storehouse.
The script of A Page of Madness is purposely scrambled and jumps from memories of the past to the here and now, mixing in various fantasies and hallucinations along the way. The beginning of the film is typical: a montage of shots of violent rain hitting the windows of the hospital; the unsettled weather induces one of them, a former dancer, to start a frantic dance. We see the dancing girl in fancy costume dancing on a stage, behind her a large colored ball is turning around. This is a memory from the past. The dancer collapses, the stage becomes a cell (we see the black bars, a fixed motive in the whole film), the dancer now wears rags - we are back in the mental hospital.
The film contains a barrage of startling imagery and haunting dreamlike visuals. Any cinematic device known, such as rapid montage - although Kinugasa didn't know the films by Eisenstein as Soviet products were forbidden in Japan - at the time is used. It is not only far ahead of anything happening in Japan in the mid-twenties, but also ahead of the world. And it is very original, there is no resemblance with for example Wiene's Dr Caligari as is sometimes claimed.
There is much misinformation about this film going around, so here are some sober facts (thanks to the study by Aaron Gerow, A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan (Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2008):
- The project was not a low-budget, independent art film made solely by a group of enthusiastic youngsters. The studio for which Kinugasa worked invested in the project and the film was shot at Shochiku's Kamogawa Studios in Kyoto. The budget was 20,000 yen, twice as much as that of the commercial jidaigeki Kinugawa usually made for Shochiku.
- Although famous modernist author and future Nobel-Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari wrote a script for the film, that was not the only scenario nor even the major one. There were several scenarios floating around this film, written by various persons.
- Originally, the film was not as incomprehensible as it is today, for the following reasons:
- The 60 minute version that was unearthed by the director (which is all we have today) was shortened and some of the more conventional narrative scenes seem to have been cut - perhaps to bring the film more in line with notions of what was considered "avant-garde" in the seventies.
- The film originally incorporated some conservative Shinpa-type narrative elements and there also seem to have been at least some inter-titles (now there are none).
- On top of that, the film was originally shown with a benshi - the famous benshi Tokugawa Musei gave his cooperation.
Some other points I would like to add:
- As was usual with art films, it was shown in a theater reserved for foreign films, the Musashinokan in Shinjuku in Tokyo.
- In the 1920s, there was a flourishing avant-garde scene in Japan (especially the Shinkankakusha, or New Impressionists, whose work experimented with a wide variety of modernist styles - Constructivism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and Expressionism) and much interest in what happened abroad in this field, so the film did not come out of the blue.
- One interesting scene: at a certain moment, the male patients of the asylum are aroused by the dance of "the wife" and they cause a riot. They are then given Noh masks to wear which make them peaceful.