During the 1920s, Teinosuke Kinugasa's startlingly modern experimental movies infused Japanese film with a sophistication that rivalled the best European art films. His innovations, along with those of Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Sadao Yamanaka, helped Japanese cinema develop a distinct cinematic voice.
Born in 1898, in Mie, Kinugasa entered film in 1917, as an onnagata, a man who specialized in female roles. At the time, Japanese cinema was evolving away from staged performances of Kabuki to become a unique cultural art form unto itself, though conventions from the theater, such as the onnagata, remained. Kinugasa turned to filmmaking in 1922, and managed to crank out several silent features (sadly lost), until the infamous 1923 Kanto earthquake, which leveled Tokyo and killed thousands of people. The quake signaled the beginning of an unprecedented influx of Western ideas into Japan. Bauhaus-inspired buildings rose from the rubble, while Marxism and Freudianism became fashionable among Japan's intellectuals. Japanese cinema began changing rapidly as well, Kenji Mizoguchi directed Blood and Soul (1924), a film directly influenced by the German masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), while Daisuke Ito gleefully used rapid montage and bizarre camera angles in his samurai epics. Yet Kinugasa's Page of Madness (1926) is widely credited as the first mature Japanese avant-garde film and one of the finest examples of international experimental cinema. The movie's dizzying, fragmented portrait of an insane asylum featured both an expressionistic aesthetic akin to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and elliptical editing that recalled Sergei Eisenstein's use of montage editing. The film was entirely self-funded, which almost broke Kinugasa. Fortunately, it was a surprising box-office success.