In the winter of 1925 Teinosuke Kinugasa visited the Matzuawa mental hospital in the Setagaya district of Tokyo and wondered “whether there wasn’t some kind of drama behind the figure of the insane.” Unbeknownst to Kingusasa at the time was the role buttons and realism would play in the realization of this drama. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Der letzte Mann premiered in Japan in Tokyo on April 1, 1926. Two days later Kinugasa took a trip from Kyoto to Tokyo to meet with Kawabata Yasunaris and Riichi Tokomitsu at the latter’s home, where they laid the plans for the project that was to become Kurutta Ichipeiji (A Page of Madness). We know that Kinugasa saw and admired Der letzte Mann: he listed it as the best artistic film of 1926 in a poll for the journal Eiga Sekai (Film World). The question is whether he saw it before or after making his own film. Kurutta Ichipeiji was written in mid to late April, shot in May, and edited in the first week of June. If Kinugasa were to have seen Murnau’s film before making his own, it would’ve had to have been between his arrival in Tokyo on April 3 and the press-conference he and his writers held on April 10, after which production began. I think Kinugasa saw Der letzte Mann that week he was in Tokyo before making Kurutta Ichipeij, and I think he processed and absorbed it at the same breakneck speed with which he made he made his seminal work.
There are two elements that bind these films to one another inextricably. The first isn’t so abstract: both directors placed an importance on costumes, specifically jackets and their buttons. In Der letzte Mann, Emil Jannings’s character, a hotel porter, wears his uniform with pride. It grants him a privileged status in the working-class neighborhood he lives in. He’s grown too old and weak to serve as a porter, though, and is demoted to a bathroom attendant. A difficult scene shows him being disrobed, humiliated, and stripped of his identity. A button falls off. The film cuts to a view of his feet and the button falls and hits the ground. Three cameras shot Murnau’s film side by side, producing three separate negatives; one for Germany, one for America, and an export version, sent to Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and then, finally, off to Japan a year and a half later. The button falls differently in every version. In the German and American versions, it falls more or less straight down. In the export, however, the button rolls as though it had been thrown from an angle. Jannings’s character later steals the coat and puts it back on before he returns home and pretends as though nothing had happened. His neighbor notices the missing button and sews on a new one, becoming an unwitting collaborator in his scheme to maintain appearances and stave off the inevitable.
The unnamed protagonist in Kurutta Ichipeiji was originally a sailor. There are no title cards to explain any of the plot; we can only glean this information from the uniform he wears in a flashback. (It’s not entirely clear, though, what exactly the uniform signifies. Maybe his contemporary audience would have understood. The film was originally shown with a live narrator, a Benshi… I wonder what he would have said about the uniform.) The protagonist has since become a janitor in an insane asylum where his wife has been interned. She’d gone mad while waiting for him out at sea and drowned their baby. He feels a sense of guilt and tries to break her out with the hopes of restoring some semblance of their former relationship, but every time he tries, she refuses. She exists outside time, in an incoherent world of lights, sounds, movements, and vibrations. He exists in past-time, unable to move on from a tragedy he thinks he could have prevented. One rainy evening he stands watching her in her cell. She reaches through her cell-bars and grasps at the button of his janitorial uniform. It’s held on by only a thread and she plucks it off. She holds it in her hand and stares deeply into it. The camera cuts to her point of view and the button morphs into a glass ball. We cut out and see her husband staring at her, nervous and confused. The rain is falling down and an attendant (or a wandering inmate?) walks by. We switch back to the wife’s point-of-view as she looks at her husband’s face; it warps beyond recognition. She drops the button on the ground and the husband sees it and then looks away, out into a corner of blank space. We flash back to what at first appears to be one of his memories: he’s in his sailor’s uniform, slightly hidden behind a tree, watching his wife drown their child. He looks on helplessly. But why is he a character in his own memory? And why can’t he intervene? We then suppose this flashback to be his guilt-ridden fantasy, a voyeuristic imagination of a crime he feels complicit in. We return to the present, where he’s again in his janitorial garb, the metamorphic button lying on the floor, his wife having since moved on to another distraction.
The second element that holds these films together is their formal approach, a type of intuitive momentum and meandering direction the stories follow. Murnau and Kinugasa both had backgrounds in the theatre, and when they decided to work in film, they tried to express something through the medium that couldn’t be expressed by other means. That is to say, they were trying to uncover the dormant possibilities of a purely cinematic form of expression. Shigehiko Hasumi claims Murnau was the first director to realize “a vertical power that breaks the viewer free from the story’s linear cause and effect…a privilege allowed only to film.” Helplessness and indeterminacy are the constitutive structure of Murnau’s films. They allowed for continuity and change, for an interdependence between the plot and its derivations. In the hunt to establish precedents for Kinugasa’s film, critics have cited the psychological expressionism of Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and the impressionistic experimentation of Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet. Both of these films were undoubtedly influential in terms of its plot and rhythmic sequencing, but neither of them could have had much influence on the complex realism that holds together the otherwise schizophrenic Kurutta Ichipeiji. There is, indeed, a bond between movements, cuts, and pans that is never arbitrary, never expressive for its own sake. There is a dynamic that regulates the ongoing temporal shifts and subjective distortions, a regulation without which the film would dissolve into a mere formal experimentation. Kinugasa, like Murnau, tried to structure his films the way life unfolds; unexpectedly, without a teleology, unified only by an agent perceiving it all.
Uniforms are important, and not only because they signify a social standing, but because they can conceal things as well. Cinema deals with the representation of man’s inner life as it manifests externally, as it becomes visual. But there’s often a discrepancy, a secret that betrays our sense that the mediation between these worlds is fluid, something that suggests that much more will always remain hidden. I think Kinugasa learned this from Murnau, and I think he learned the same thing about buttons, that they have not only a utilitarian function but a metaphysical one as well. They fasten clothes and identities, memories, fantasies, delusions and films with one another.
(Author’s Note: I want to express my gratitude to Aaron Gerow and for his A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2009. A great deal of the historical record and nearly all of the quotations cited in this essay were translated from the Japanese by Aaron Gerow and published in his study.)