REVIEW: A Page of Madness

Thursday, October 13, 2022~

A Page of Madness (1926) is a Japanese silent horror film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa. Just this past Thursday, the Center for Japanese studies hosted a free screening of it at the Michigan Theater.

I first heard about the event from my Japanese, and I thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to practice my listening skills. I also don’t have much experience with horror films, so this seemed like it would be a good experience.

The general plot follows a man, played by Masao Inoue, who took a job as a janitor at a mental asylum. He did so in an attempt to get closer to his wife, played by Yoshie Nakagawa, who was admitted there.

Unusually, this film did not have intertitles as I would have expected from a silent film; however, there was a benshi, a live performer who narrated silent films. Benshi were popular in Japan during the silent film era, and some say that they may have even extended the era for Japan. During the event’s introduction, they even mentioned that in later times people would turn off the sound for movies so that they could bring in a benshi. 

Nanako Yamauchi, a graduate of the oldest film school in Japan, Nihon University’s Film Department, was our benshi that day — and she was mesmerizing.

I admittedly didn’t catch much of the plot since there was no form of English translation and I’ve only been studying Japanese for a little more than a year. I understood some of the basic dialogue and a few phrases, but that’s all. However, as Yamauchi mentioned before the film began, it didn’t matter if we didn’t understand her. The emotion and drama in her voice were palpable, and you could easily recognize the emotional state of each character.

Additionally, the Detroit group Little Bang Theory (Frank Pahl, Terri Sarris, and Doug Shimmin), performed an original score that they played on toy and handmade instruments. Their music complimented Yamauchi’s narration and excellently set the film’s chilling mood.

While the film itself wasn’t too scary for me, nor did I find the plot anything extraordinary (probably because I didn’t understand it), the overall experience was valuable. After learning and witnessing firsthand the unique film culture of benshi narrations, I’m definitely intrigued to see more (maybe when I have a better grasp of the language).

This event was the first of CJS’s Japanese Film Series for the year. Their theme this time is Diamonds by the Decade, exploring different eras of Japanese movies. If you’re interested in that, I’d highly recommend checking out what other films they’ll be showing at the Michigan Theater!

REVIEW: Page of Madness

For the second time since spring break, renowned Japanese benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, joined us in Ann Arbor for a special performance of a Japanese silent film, this time the avant-garde film Page of Madness.  Page of Madness revolves around man who works as a janitor at an asylum to be near his wife who is a patient there. With only 10 of these benshi, traditional narrators of Japanese silent films, left in the world this is a true treat.  I had been absolutely stunned by Kataoka’s skill the first time I saw him perform alongside the silent gangster film Dragnet Girl, and was only left more impressed by talent and professionalism this time around.  Just like last time, whenever I could tear myself away from what was happening on screen, it was fascinating just to watch him perform, his face and body language changing and emoting along with his voice.

Little Bang Theory getting up from their station

The music was done wonderfully by the trio Little Bang Theory.  I was constantly in awe by their performance, they didn’t’ seem to be working off any sheet music but didn’t miss a single note. The soundtrack matched perfectly with the visuals, both haunting and frenzied, complementing the overall tone of the film.  I was also intrigued by the vast array of instruments ranging from quite traditional to ones I had never seen before.   What I found the most amusing were the small wind up toys, similar to the kind you might find in an antique shop, that were used throughout the movie.  Each member of the band was in charge of a variety of different instruments and noisemakers and would switch back and forth as needed, seamlessly keeping the live soundtrack going as they did so.  Just watching them was worth the price of admission itself.

What surprised my friends and I was how brilliantly the story held our attention, despite having absolutely no english subtitles or translation for the entire 60 minute run.  None of us understood more than a handful of words in Japanese.  We credit this to the talent of all the performers, for providing inspiring and haunting performances that perfectly complimented the film itself, along with the film’s rich visuals and intriguing story.

Performers on stage taking a final bow.

When the show was finally over, the performers took a bow to a loud roar of applause and a standing ovation by many.  As my friends and I walked back to our dorm we were left in a state of shock and admiration, talking about the experience and our different interpretations of the movie the entire walk back.

While the film festival is over, I encourage you to see what different events are coming up in the Michigan theater, as well as start making plans for next year’s film festival! Events like these, that combine film with live performance are not one to miss!


REVIEW: Charlie Chaplin Short Films

Have you ever shut off the volume on the TV because you were tired of listening to commercials, only to find that the show has sneakily come back on? Now you watch in silence and people are dancing about on the screen, mouths are moving, dogs are chasing postmen, and you don’t know a single thing that they are saying. But that’s the fun! You start creating your own dialogue and suddenly, a tense chase scene turns comic with every pun you fling about the room.

Silent films increase creativity, I’m sure of it! I definitely felt like my mind was more active than usual when I sat in the magical Michigan Theater watching a silent black and white Charlie Chaplin tumble and twirl his famous little bowler hat on the big screen.

Charlie Chaplin made the majority of his vaudeville films from 1920-1940, and is known widely as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. He wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and wrote the music for most of his films. He was a do-it-all kind of guy. His films were silly, inventive, full of plot twists and long-drawn out humorous scenes (think of those Family Guy moments when Brian and Stewie go back and forth for five minutes), just the kind of entertaining distraction people living through the Depression and World War 2 needed. But all of his films mostly serve as a response and encouragement to the condition of the people. His protagonists are mainly poor and are treated badly, but remain upbeat and kind, which was also just what I needed on a dreary cold winter day!

A very talented man on the vintage Barton Organ sat down and began to play Chaplin’s own accompanying score as the lights went down. At first, it was very strange to see the actors’ mouths moving without knowing what they were saying. It was like I was watching a poorly-timed Anime movie, but even worse, an Anime movie that had forgotten to put the sound in altogether! There were hardly any slides of “dialogue” – where the films cuts away from the action and includes a line of dialogue directing the audience how to interpret a certain scene. Without many clues, we were forced to pay attention to the mood invoked by the organ music. At times of suspense, it rushed along with anticipation. In dreamy moments or love scenes, the organ might play a variation of the Wedding Song. It’s amazing how the brain soon adapts to missing elements of everyday life (talking), and normalizes a new way of enjoying life.

For that hour and a half, I didn’t miss talking at all. In fact, I was quite pleased to create my own story to match what I saw before me. I watched the other movie-goers and wondered if their stories were similar to mine. But I realized that it didn’t matter. And anyways, I wouldn’t dare break the silence to ask them! Here we were sharing a public space, but experiencing very different movies in our head. It was the first time it hit me: that films are intrinsically private journeys. Private journeys that Charlie Chaplin believed the world should go on together.