Toshio Matsumoto’s feature debut from 1969 is a tapestry of transgression.
Both a fictional, enjoyably outrageous story of feuding transvestites and an authentic depiction of gay life in sixties Japan, Funeral Parade of Roses is a film of startling originality. It’s a gender-bending, monochromatic mosaic, featuring murder, incest, girl gangs, slapstick humour and confounding sexuality. Dazzling and often fantastic, it’s also peppered with reality.
Beginning with the stark words, “I am the wound and the blade, both the torturer and he who is flayed”, Funeral Parade of Roses is set in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo. It combines an Oedipus-style narrative with unscripted interviews with gay men and cameos from famous Japanese figures playing themselves (newsreader Jiro Yagi; film critic Choji Yodogawa). Its cast was predominantly comprised of amateurs, alongside Seven Samurai’s Yoshio Tsuchiya.
Pîtâ plays Eddie, a young transvestite who’s involved in a relationship with an older man, Gonda (Tsuchiya), the drug-dealing manager of a drag queen bar - Bar Genet. The pair are shown to be conspiring behind the back of the establishment’s existing Madam, Leda (Osama Ogasawara), who is also a squeeze of Gondra’s.
The threat of the young pretender, who passes more convincingly as a woman, is most memorably depicted when Leda gazes into a mirror and spouts the famous, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” with Eddie appearing magically behind her. As the rivalry plays out, Eddie’s dramatic back-story is drip-fed to us in a series of shocking flashbacks, revealing her to be dangerous and disturbed.
Funeral Parade of Roses is a film both of its time and decades ahead of it. It reveals what it was like to be young in late sixties Japan, with its cocktail of drugs, protest, artistic expression and uninhibited sexuality. Matsumoto floods his film with quotes and references, as well as cameos. The opening words come from ‘The Flowers of Evil’ by Charles Baudelaire; the bar is named after the radical French writer and activist Jean Genet, and was in fact the real bar where Pîtâ was discovered.
Matsumoto was influenced by the European avant-garde, along with American experimental and documentary cinema (he’d shot several short documentaries himself ahead of this). One film whose haunting, elliptical stylings seem to have had a particular influence is Alain Resnais’ superlative Hiroshima Mon Amour.
In Funeral Parade of Roses Matsumoto experiments wildly and wonderfully. He blurs the lines between male and female, reality and fiction. During a stylised, interracial sex scene he gets provocatively close as the same-sex bodies sensuously intertwine, then, disconcertingly, the camera pulls back to expose the artifice, revealing the camera equipment and looming members of cast and crew, before things segue into an interview.
The characters in Funeral Parade of Roses might be slave to fate but the film consistently surprises, right up to its astonishing conclusion. It’s a beautiful head-fuck; an illuminating exploration of underground culture, a film whose many glistening fragments form a truly unforgettable whole.