If one wanted to explore Japanese cinema history by studying the careers of its central figures, one could start with actor-turned-director Teinosuke Kinugasa. His biography is intertwined with each phase of his country’s cinema, from its roots in Japanese theatre traditions to the boundary-pushing of the 1920s, the transition to sound, and the conditions of World War II and its aftermath. Kinugasa directed 118 films, for nearly every major Japanese studio. But he is perhaps best remembered for a pair of films made by his own independent production company, A Page of Madness and Jujiro. They’re often cited as the earliest avant-garde Japanese films, and Jujiro holds historic stature as the most successful Japanese film exported into the Western market prior to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in 1951.
Teinosuke Kinugasa was born to a tobacco merchant in Mie in 1896 the same year that cinema came to Japan in the form of Edison’s Kinetoscope. The Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematograph followed in early 1897, and within two years Tsunekichi Shibata, the first Japanese cinematographer, was making actualities of street scenes. Shibata and others soon began filming excerpts of kabuki plays popular during this period. The stylized, colorful kabuki theater had been created in 1603 by an all-woman troupe, but as the bawdy genre spread in popularity, the shogunate banned female actors from the stage. Kabuki survived in a mutated form performed entirely by men, and female impersonators known as onnagatas became its most prominent figures.
Kinugasa decided at age seventeen to run away from the family business and become an onnagata himself. While he was performing in Tokyo, the nascent Nikkatsu studio hired him to replace one of its most important oyama (the film equivalent of the onnagata), who was unable to appear in an upcoming production.
Japanese audiences had become accustomed to seeing actresses in foreign films, and were beginning to appreciate homegrown actresses in modern plays that required natural sopranos to sing Western-style music. But it wasn’t until the early 1920s that upstart studios like Shochiku began hiring them for films. The first female Japanese movie stars enjoyed popularity that almost instantly surpassed their oyama counterparts. Perhaps sensing the shift, Kinugasa began to write and direct his films, starting in 1920 with The Death of My Sister, in which he played the sister. When the Nikkatsu studio began hiring actresses in 1922, Kinugasa staged a mass walkout of oyama. This event portended a swift end to his career as a female impersonator.
On September 1st, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake and Fire devastated Tokyo. Over 100,000 deaths and nearly 2 million displacements resulted from the destruction and the violent aftermath, in which Korean and Chinese residents of Tokyo were massacred in a pogrom. While the government considered moving the nation’s capital to another province, the film industry packed up what was left among the rubble and actually made such a move, to Kyoto. The void created during this period of restructuring was filled with a flood of foreign films, which spurred Japanese filmmakers to expand their palette of cinematic techniques to compete with the imports.
Advancements in the post-quake cinema were most strongly evident in jidaigeki (period films), of which Kinugasa made dozens. But he also joined an avant-garde literary group known as the Shinkankakuha (New Sensationalists), who were influenced by Dada, constructivism, futurism, and other Western art movements. After making Nichirin (The Sun, 1925), a Shinkankakuha-inspired transposition of Flaubert’s Salammbô to the mythic age of Japanese gods, Kinugasa founded his own independent production company (Kinugasa Eiga Renmei) in 1926 with an eye toward making even more experimental films, starting with A Page of Madness.
A Page of Madness takes the viewer into the world of a mental hospital, where a retired seaman has become a janitor so he can be near his committed wife. Influenced by innovations in German expressionist and French impressionist films important to the Shinkankakuha group (though it’s unclear whether Kinugasa himself saw any of these films prior to filming), A Page of Madness employs an array of devices to convey the subjective reality of the asylum inmates, all without a single title to help explain the narrative. As Kinugasa later said, “story was less important than technical experimentation: tracking shots, close-ups, rapid montage, flashbacks, dissolves, irises, etc. In this film I used almost every avant-garde technique.”
Japanese critics were duly impressed by A Page of Madness. Akira Iwasaki called it “the first film-like film born in Japan.” It did not lead to any great clamor for more of the same. Kinugasa’s company was forced to turn out period action films for distribution by the Shochiku studio, and the director had to wait two years before his next foray into experimental cinema with Jujiro.
Planned as a jidaigeki without swordplay, Jujiro envisions a milieu much darker than the average samurai film: a psychological study of a brother and sister who live near the licensed brothel district of Yoshiwara. To create Jujiro’s version of the Tokyo pleasure zone, art director Yozo Tomonari had the sets painted gray, and cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama shot entirely at night. The result is a chiaroscuro bleakness that matches Kinugasa’s reportedly dismal mood during filming.
Jujiro proved to be no more of a financial success than A Page of Madness, and it was the last film made by Kinugasa Eiga Renmei. However, the film found new life outside Japan. Kinugasa took a two-year break from filmmaking and traveled to Europe with a print of Jujiro in tow. In Germany it received a theatrical release under the title Shadows of Yoshiwara, and it also played in Paris, London and New York, where it was called Slums of Tokyo.
Upon returning to Japan, Kinugasa directed commercial films. In 1932, he made the first jidaigeki talkie, and he followed it with The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin, an enormous hit that secured Kinugasa’s reputation as a master of the genre. The majority of his career, which lasted into the 1960s, was devoted to all manner of period pieces, though none considered as audacious as Jujiro. His first color film, Gate of Hell (1954), caused a sensation throughout the West upon its prize-winning debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but Kinugasa never attained the international fame of the younger Akira Kurosawa.
Kinugasa experienced something of a resurgence in the 1970s when a print of A Page of Madness, unseen for decades, was found by the director in a rice barrel at his country home. This film’s rediscovery led to renewed interest in Jujiro, a print of which had been kept safe at the British Film Institute. Of the more than fifty silent films Kinugasa directed, only a handful are known to survive, a condition that afflicts the pre-World War II legacy of nearly every Japanese filmmaker. As Kinugasa remarked toward the end of his career, those who know Japan’s cinematic history only through films made since Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and his own Gate of Hell, “came in when the picture was half over, so to speak.”
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Stephen Horne