308. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969)

Bara no sôretsu 

“Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C’est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.”

“It’s in my voice, the raucous jade!
It’s in my blood’s black venom too!
I am the looking-glass, wherethrough
Megera sees herself portrayed!”

–Baudelaire, “L’Héautontimorouménos,” Fleurs du Mal (English translation Roy Campbell)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Toshio Matsumoto

FEATURING: Peter (Pîtâ), Yoshio Tsuchiya, Osamu Ogasawara, Toyosaburo Uchiyama

PLOT: Eddie is a rising star in a Japanese drag cabaret; he is having an affair with the bar’s owner, Gondo. The club’s “madame,” Leda, who is also sleeping with Gondo, grows jealous of Eddie and devises a revenge against him. This story is served up out-of-sequence, however, and often broken up by stand-alone vignettes and documentary-style interviews where the actors are questioned about their alternative lifestyles and their roles in the film.

Still from Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Toshio Matsumoto’s first feature film after producing nine shorts (mostly documentaries). Matsumoto would continue to work largely in the short format: among his thirty-four credited directorial works, only four are categorized as full-length features. He was also a critic and theorist whose collected writings span six volumes. He died in 2017.
  • The “gay boys” were played by non-professional actors from the Tokyo homosexual community. The star, Peter, developed an acting career afterwards, advancing far enough to land the role of the Fool in ‘s Ran.
  • The Japanese word meaning “roses” was also derisive slang for homosexuals.
  • The avant-garde short screened within the film is “Ecstasis,” which also stars Peter and Toyosaburo Uchiyama.  Matsumoto released it separately.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Eddie’s face, not androgynous, but wholly feminine, though glamed-up with an array of tiaras, false eyelashes, and decorative star stickers. We particularly like the scene where Leda (dressed as a geisha) is admiring herself in the mirror (and silently incanting “Snow White”‘s “mirror, mirror, on the wall…”), as an image of Eddie strides up from behind, invading Leda’s looking-glass in his black evening gown.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Ladies at a urinal; drag queen shootout; too-literal Oedipus complex

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Helped along by an earnestly queer cast of amateurs, Funeral Parade of Roses is a masquerade drag burlesque, a tragic and absurd procession of countercultural confusion among “gay boys” in a tumultuous Japan. A psychedelic-era movie set in Tokyo’s underground homosexual community that takes its bearings from “Oedipus Rex” and name-checks Jonas Mekas and Jean Genet along the way—pausing for a liberal dose of slapstick—is bound to turn out weird.


Brief fan-edit of scenes from Funeral Parade of Roses

COMMENTS: “Each man has his own mask,” says the voice from the tape recorder at a subterranean gallery of Surrealist portraiture.  “There is a second mask underneath the first mask. And a third mask is hidden underneath the second mask.” Eddie, a man living as a woman in late 60s Japan, understands the importance of a decorative facade. But the movie he exists in, Funeral Parade of Roses, wears even more masks: it’s a documentary masquerading as a narrative that’s actually an experimental film. Or, maybe it’s an avant-garde provocation pretending to be a portrait of the Japanese counterculture hiding under the guise of an adaptation of “Oedipus Rex.”  It’s onion-skinned, but you can never peel it to find the reality at its core: rather, its liquid layers constantly bleed into one another. You strip off its third mask, only to discover that you’re once again looking at that first mask.

Experimentalism is the impulse and fiction the necessary form, but the “gay boy” subculture is the subject of Funeral Parade. Matsumoto’s discovery of the charismatic Peter and his friends was a stroke of luck. For an amateur actor, Peter is remarkably expressive, in an unstudied way, lending an air of believability to the decidedly unnatural proceedings. Interviewed out-of-character (but inside the frame of Funeral Parade), Peter really does seem to be almost the exact same persona as Eddie[1]. Although Funeral Parade takes time out to interview several of the “gay boys” (including both Peter and co-star Osamu Ogasawara) on camera, they offer little insight into their own psychologies. When Matsumoto asks them why they chose a gay lifestyle, their answers are matter-of-fact. “I just like it,” responds one. “No particular reason,” answers another. “I don’t know. But I like it… I was born that way,” says a third. They are too much in the middle of living their lives to be reflective about it; their answers are disarmingly simple and honest. Funeral Parade focuses mainly on Japan’s gay subculture, but it places it in context as part of a larger boundary-smashing movement, seen in real footage of a street demonstration (a procession of protesting men in gas masks bearing boxes that confuses passersby) and in the pot-smoking avant-garde artists led by the filmmaker “Guevera” (a self-deprecating, comic stand-in for the director). Matsumoto also pauses to interview the young extras about their marijuana use. The long “orgy” sequence, where gays and straights alike smoke pot and strip to their undies while dancing to acid rock guitar licks marks Funeral Parade as much a portrait of outré Japanese youth culture of the time as of the contemporary gay scene.

On the narrative level, Funeral Parade is a very loose adaptation of “Oedipus Rex,” by way of a Japanese soap opera in drag. At its core is the hoariest of plot engines, the love triangle. One of the modern viewer’s main issues with the film may be its nods to Freudian psychology, it’s suggestion that it’s some deep childhood trauma that turned Eddie away from the heterosexual path and made him this way. (It’s worth mentioning that the script’s Oedipal motives are the one part of Eddie’s character he says he doesn’t relate to). Regardless of how you feel about these machinations, the sham tragedy enacted as the film unfolds arguably hints at, and even amplifies, the real-life tragedy of transsexual alienation. At any rate, the plot’s eventual direction is hidden by a disorienting narrative strategy: events are chopped up and shown out of sequence. We start in the middle of the story. Memories of a cigarette burning a photo and a woman covered in blood recur several times before their significance is revealed, leading in a roundabout way to a bloody conclusion.

The out-of-sequence story is not only interrupted by documentary inserts, and by bits like the orgy which expand on the milieu without doing anything to advance the plot, but also by numerous ian digressions that further highlight the film’s artifice. There are almost subliminal inserts lasting only a few frames spread throughout the film: a man in a wheelchair, a bicycle wheel covered in spaghetti. Longer nonsensical shots show a line of naked men from behind, one clenching a flower between his buttocks, and a man carrying a dead rat by its tail. At one point Eddie magically appears in Leda’s mirror. There are snatches of the avant-garde films Guevara is creating, and the director also sneezes off his beard at one point. A carnival organ plays a children’s song for sex scenes. Parts are sped up to look like the Keystone Kops, and a confrontation between Leda and Eddie is imagined as a parody of a cowboy shootout. Words appear in cartoon bubbles. Intertitles randomly appear proclaiming “applause requested” or “the road to sanctity is narrow” (the latter is a quote from Genet). These distancing techniques, mostly borrowed from the French , speak to Matsumoto’s affinity with Western cinema revolutions, but have a distinctly Japanese flair. Like the nonlinear narrative, they serve to disorient the viewer, interrupting Funeral Parade‘s flow and chopping it up into bits.

Note how the film’s three strata—tragic narrative, absurdist experimentation, and semi-documentary filmmaking—come together at the film’s climax. At the gory, utterly solemn denouement, a film critic suddenly breaks in with a ridiculously understated review: “It was such a unique film with cruelty and laughter. Let’s look forward to the next movie!” Then, in the final few shots, Eddie wanders out onto the street to be stared by gawking pedestrians, real residents of Tokyo on their lunch breaks who had no idea what they were watching. Funeral Parade ends as a document of the kind of street “happening” that might have been staged by Guevara or one of his hippie friends.

An oft-repeated (but unsourced) anecdote suggests that Funeral Parade of Roses inspired  to make A Clockwork Orange (1971). Although there are a few stylistic similarities (the use of electronically altered classical pieces, occasional undercranking, and maybe even the false eyelashes), the differences seem more profound: Clockwork Orange sports a highly formal, symmetrical narrative versus Matsumoto’s anarchic time scale, and a tightly constructed moral lesson as compared to Funeral Parade‘s scattered themes. No one doubts that Kubrick was a master at absorbing the lessons of the avant-garde and putting them into more palatable narrative contexts, but the connection here seems overstated.  ‘s WR: Mysteries of the Organism, which also mixes documentary and narrative elements with leftist political reflections and a healthy dose of sexual energy (and transvestites) is perhaps a Funeral Parade‘s more obvious descendant. At any rate, seen in the jaded 21st century, Funeral Parade‘s hedonistic shenanigans look almost quaint (OMG! pot-fueled bisexual orgies!). But its aesthetics remain exotic to most viewers, while its surrealistic strategies are still capable of frustrating the literal-minded. It’s a stylistic artifact of its time, but with contemporary relevance— its gender confusion is a metaphor (or mask) for larger societal upheavals. On seeing it you might echo Jonathan Romney’s admiring lament: “when, you wonder, will cinema ever get quite this wild again?” Soon, we hope.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Matumoto] is intent on making us not just watch his movie but experience it is a full-body sensation. The result is very much a trip, the kind you might not be able to make sense of at a very step of a way but later, after returning to reality, will be glad to have embarked on.”–Michael Nordine, IndieWire (2017 revival)

“The film is also wholly of its triumphantly counterculture era, as the director piles on a battery of strobe lights and other hallucinogenic visual/sound effects and sudden, startling images from the characters’ varying subconsciousness. In ’69, there was never a zeitgeist, and the film, in its determined, fecund outrageousness, evokes the Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey efforts being shot at the same time, but much more skillfully done and less boring.”–David Noh, Film Journal International (2017 revival)

“…a vital, ineffably strange film. You may not directly identify with Eddie or his world, but you will walk away from Matsumoto’s film with a newfound appreciation of what movies can be.”–Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (Blu-ray)

OFFICIAL SITE:

FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES | CINELICIOUS PICS – Has the trailer, a selection of stills, and a paragraph of background

IMDB LINK: Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Midnight Eye Review: Funeral Parade of Roses – This review of the Eureka DVD release contains valuable background information

Tokyo Unmasked – Marc Francis article on Funeral Parade for the Cinelicious blog, putting the film into its queer context

HOME VIDEO INFO: Cinelicious Pics (of Belladonna of Sadness fame) restored and re-released Funeral Parade of Roses to theaters in 2017, soon followed by a Blu-ray (buy). Surprisingly, this (ahem) seminal film had never been available on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. before. Extra features include the original Japanese trailer, a new trailer cut for this release, and commentary by Japanese movie expert Chris D. A second disc collects eight early Matsumoto shorts produced between 1961 and 1975, which show his development from experimental documentaries (the earliest film is a strangely eerie testament to laborers in a textile factory) to abstract examples of what we would today recognize as the psychedelic style: bright lights, promiscuous zooms, and fast edits scored to wah-wah guitars and Moog synthesizers. Naturally the release comes with a booklet (by Japanese film historian Hirofumi Sakamoto) that is especially valuable for its brief explanations of the shorts.

By all accounts the Cinelicious package is a slight audiovisual improvement over the previous best release of Funeral Parade, the Region 2 DVD from Eureka’s “Masters of Cinema” line (buy). Eureka’s edition, however, does sport some desirable special features not available to Cinelicious—a commentary from Matsumoto himself, along with a separate 20-minute interview.

Funeral Parade of Roses was not available on streaming video at the date of this review.

(This movie was nominated for review by kay, who called it a ” late 60s japanese movie about lifes of transvestives.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

  1. Matsumoto’s fourth-wall-breaking technique of interviewing the actors about their characterizations would later be used, less successfully, by in The Passion of Anna []

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