Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is one of those rare Japanese films which, while heavily borrowing from the aesthetics and genre iconography of other countries and cultures, is distinctly, unmistakably singular in vision, execution, and impact. Trying to winnow it down into any kind of movement isn’t just inappropriate, it’s outright reductive. Yes, the film feels heavily inspired by the American queer and underground cinema scenes à la Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and Jonas Mekas, the latter of which is directly quoted by one of its characters. Many of its formal techniques seem pilfered from the creative cupboards of the French New Wave, in particular John-Luc Godard’s Brechtian flourishes and Alain Resnais’ disassociations of time, space, and memory. And the few bits and pieces of footage that can pass for a plot are directly influenced by Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. But the film stands on its own as an astonishing achievement, both as an unparalleled aesthetic phantasm and as a watershed moment in LGBTQ+ cinema. It also holds the rare distinction of being one of the most influential films few people have heard of and even fewer people have seen, not receiving a foreign home video release until the mid 2000s. The film has long been a cause célèbre for theorists and critics as well as an inspiration for filmmakers, the most famous being Stanley Kubrick. Now, thanks to a new restoration courtesy of Cinelicious Pics and SpectreVision, Matsumoto’s elusive masterpiece will be returning to theaters later this June at New York City’s Quad Cinema (June 9) and Los Angeles’ The Cinefamily (June 16).
The film dives into Tokyo’s 1960s gay counterculture, centering on Eddie (performed by the mononymous Japanese entertainer Peter), a transvestite lounge singer in a popular gay bar. Known as “gay boys,” Eddie and his fellow transvestites carouse and flirt, fall in and out of love, in and out of bed with each other. There are orgies and hook-ups, petty competitions and rivalries. There are many fights, some between each other, some with naturally-born women giving them dirty looks on the sidewalk. Sometimes Eddie stops to hang out with Guevara (Toyosaburo Uchiyama), an experimental filmmaker and illicit drug connoisseur who wiles away in a basement with a small legion of devotees, drop-outs, and revolutionaries. Several times during the film, Matsumoto breaks the fourth wall and interviews his actors about their characters and the scenes they just shot. The most notable of these comes in the middle of a love scene between Eddie and an African-American soldier. The camera holds Eddie’s face in extreme close-up as he writhes in agonized bliss before smash-cutting to an overhead shot of the film crew looking on and the director calling cut, revealing him to be all alone on his side of the bed and surrounded by extras. As he climbs off the mattress, a voice asks Peter the actor—not Eddie the character—what he thinks of the love scene they just shot. After a moment, we begin wondering who is filming these segments: is it really Matsumoto, or is it Guevara?
Loosely threading its way through all these assorted vignettes is a queer inversion of the aforementioned Oedipus Rex. As a child, we learn, Eddie’s father abandoned him and his mother. After being terribly beaten by his mother after catching him trying on her lipstick, Eddie savagely murders her and her lover in a rage of—what? Fury? Envy? Jealousy? It’s impossible to say. But as a grown gay boy, he begins an affair with an older man he eventually discovers is his own missing father. Mortified, the father kills himself and Eddie gouges his eyes out. But this “storyline” is nothing more than a superficial framework upon which Matsumoto hangs his story of gay loneliness, passion, and self-destruction. For one, the film only pays narrative lip service to the more gruesome details of Sophocles play: there’s no stand-in for the Greek chorus, no Delphic Oracle, no Creon, no Tiresias. There’s no examination of the play’s themes of free will vs. fate: Eddie never seems destined for self-annihilation. And Eddie’s no hero, neither in the specific vein of Greek tragedy nor in its more generalized modern day interpretation. However, Eddie seems to be the embodiment of hamartia, the concept in Greek tragedy of an unfortunate flaw or mistake that inadvertently dooms the otherwise stalwart hero. Whether he’s “good” or “bad” is irrelevant: his queerness has marked him for destruction by heteronormative society. And in a lifestyle dominated by performative displays of extreme emotion, what end could be more fitting than one modeled after Sophocles’ immortal cornerstone of performative art?
But the film isn’t some maudlin bore—it’s a film brimming over with life and creative exuberance. Matsumoto plumbs the techniques of experimental cinema with chaotic abandon, filling Funeral Parade of Roses with flash-forwards, flash-backs, random shots of naked gay men standing in rows, fights that are sped up, love scenes that are overexposed, and in a flourish that Kubrick would borrow for A Clockwork Orange (1971), fight scenes that are sped up as upbeat classical music plays in the background. Marx Augustin’s “Oh du lieber Augustin” is a frequent musical motif, especially during moments of heightened passion and action, giving the film an extra layer of deliberate, ironic artifice. At times it feels like we’re watching the birth pains of a new strain of queer cinema, one both beautiful and tragic, unapologetic and glorious.
Featured Image: Art Theatre Guild