Kinugasa worked as a director in the Japanese film industry from 1920 to 1966. His main work was at the Shochiku and Daiei Studios. He had started in films acting as an oyama – a male actor impersonating in women’s roles. His 1953 film Gate of Hell (Jigokumon) won both the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Colour Costume Design and a Special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture. But Kinugasa is most famous for two very distinctive films late in the silent era.
A Page of Madness (Kurita ippèji, 1926) is an avant-garde film with striking use of montage and of the expressionist use of chiaroscuro. The plot concerns an old man who works in an insane asylum in order to be near to his wife who is an inmate. However, the action is presented in an elliptical fashion and without any title cards. The film works in an open and fragmentary manner and [as with the inmates] moving between reality and illusion. The film was almost totally innovatory in the Japanese cinema of the time. However, its challenging form did not appeal to audiences and the film was believed lost until its rediscovery in the 1970s. It now holds place as a distinctive classic of Japanese film.
Kinugasa’s 1928 film Crossroads (also Crossways / Jujiro) combines the technical experimentation of the earlier film with a far more accessible plot. Set in the C18th it concerns a young man who is smitten with the charms of a geisha. She prefers his rival though she also exploits the young innocent. A fight leads to his temporary blindness. His sister sacrifices herself to obtain treatment for her brother. The melodrama continues to a violent and tragic resolution.
The sister who sacrifices herself for her brother is a staple of Japanese culture, notably in the films of Mizoguchi Kenji.
The use of expressionist chiaroscuro in the film both dramatises the plight of the brother and the oppressive situation of the sister. Whilst the montage, combined with a use of Grand Guignol reminiscent of Eisenstein, dramatises the exploitative and decadent character of the milieu of Yoshiwara, the area of debauchery and prostitution.
The later film falls into the period characterised as ‘late silents’; the use of synchronous sounds in commercial features having arrived in the USA in 1927. However, in Japan [along with several other East Asian countries] the use of sound was delayed for several years. This was partly economic, because of the capital cost involved, including the wiring of exhibition venues. But there was a particular factor in Japanese cinema, the power of the benshi, who provided voiceover and commentary for silent films. The benshi were one reason why Japanese film came late to the use of title cards. There were benshi strikes against the introduction of sound in 1932. The earliest surviving indigenous sound film in Japan is The Speech of Prime Minister Tanaka (Seiyukai Sosia Tanaka Giichi-shi Enzetsu, 1928). Sound features appeared in 1930, one of the earliest surviving films is by Mizoguchi Kenji, Hometown (Fujiwara Yoshie no Furosato). Kinugasa directed the first sound version of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chūshingura) in 1932. It was only in 1935 that the production of sound films in Japan exceeded that of silents. And the latter type of film was still made a couple of years later.
There is an opportunity to see Crossways in a reasonably good 35mm print at the National Media Museum on Sunday March 16th. And there will be a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.
Note, it is possible that the 35mm print will not be available and the screening will have to use some other format.