The Japanese avant-garde and experimental film festival (Jaeff) launches itself next month with a rare London showing of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s silent classic A Page Of Madness (Japanese title Kurutta Ippēji) featuring a live semi-improvised score by Clive Bell, Sylvia Hallett and Keiko Kitamura. The trio will be performing on traditional and contemporary instruments, along with a benshi – that is, a Japanese early cinema style live – narrator Tomoko Komura.
Made in 1926, the film is a surrealist work set in a psychiatric hospital, created by director Kinugasa in collusion with the prewar avant garde group Shinkankakuha, future Nobel prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata among them. Lost for 45 years, the film was found by Kinugasa in his garden shed in 1971.
“There is no original score,” explains Clive Bell. “It was a silent film, originally presented with a benshi narrator (explaining and voicing all the characters), and music by a local cabaret band. No one really knows what they played, but it was probably semi-improvised on a mixture of Japanese and Western instruments. We’re doing something similar, mixing traditional instruments with Sylvia Hallett’s electronics and live processing. I’ll be musically directing the semi-improvised score.
“The film is a great example of the incredibly vibrant artistic activity going on in 1920s Japan, maybe comparable to 1920s Berlin,” Bell continues. “Film was still a very young medium, and Japanese film makers were lapping up new expressionist styles emerging every week from Germany.
“A Page Of Madness was made by a young and eager group, who were really pushing the boat out artistically, but their avant garde experiments were surprisingly popular – the film found a good audience and picked up awards. The filming process was like a chaotic series of try-outs and experiments by an on-the-edge theatre group.
“It was scripted by the young novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who went on to be Japan’s first Nobel winner for literature. He also wrote intertitles to explain (a little of) what was going on. In the final cut the director (Teinosuke Kinugasa) took out all the intertitles.”
The screening will be accompanied by a discussion featuring film critic Jasper Sharp, Pamela Hutchinson, Tomoko Komura and Professor Sonu Shamdasani, director of the UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines.
A Page Of Madness will be screened at London Kings College on 24 September. Tickets are available now. You can read Clive Bell's essay on the benshi narration of silent cinema in Japan over in our columns section.