A dizzying pop-art fantasia, Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is a film that evades straightforward categorisation. Through a rapid-fire combination of melodrama, comedy, horror, documentary and experimental film, director Toshio Matsumoto’s freewheeling approach to both genre and form results in a film that gleefully disorientates without ever feeling disjointed.
Made at a point in cinema history when radically-minded filmmakers the world over were testing, breaking and redefining the limits of good filmmaking and good taste, Matsumoto’s movie attacks on both fronts with an irrepressible fervour, creating a film that has retained its power to surprise, delight and shock more than 50 years later.
The film shines a spotlight on the ‘gay boy’ subculture of late-1960s Japan, specifically the gender-nonconforming hostesses of a Tokyo gay bar. Funeral Parade of Roses was made at a time when the lines between identities like ‘gay man’, ‘drag queen’ and ‘transgender’ were far hazier than they are today, and the precise nature of the characters’ own self-image is difficult to pinpoint (perhaps somewhat intentionally). However, I would feel confident in describing characters such as Eddie and Leda – the leading lady and her arch-nemesis respectively – as transfeminine.
It’s their bitter rivalry, both professional and romantic, that forms the backbone of the loose, non-linear plot. Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the reigning madame of Bar Genet, begins to suspect Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), her boyfriend and the bar’s owner, of sleeping with glamorous up-and-coming hostess Eddie (played by Peter, a famous trans entertainer in Japan who later appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran) behind her back.
Her suspicions are well founded, as Gonda is not only cheating but also planning to ditch her entirely and cement Eddie both as his new permanent squeeze and as a younger, hipper queen bee of Bar Genet.
A milestone in both the Japanese New Wave and world cinema as a whole, Funeral Parade of Roses is also a landmark film in the queer cinema canon. While significant films of the concurrent French New Wave, or those beginning to emerge from a burgeoning New Hollywood, often displayed either chronic incuriosity or outright apathy towards the lives and experiences of queer people (despite the lifting of many of the censorial rules that had previously quashed on-screen queerness), Matsumoto’s film is unapologetically queer. It may, from time to time, take on the look and feel of a Jean-Luc Godard film (it certainly owes much to the nouvelle vague) but Funeral Parade of Roses offers a vital alternative to the rigid heteronormativity that still pervaded much of the output then being made by even the most rebellious of filmmakers.
The clash of queens at the centre of the story plays out as a kind of funhouse-mirror reflection of the ‘tradition versus modernity’ conflicts that had defined many of Yasujiro Ozu’s domestic dramas in the 1940s and 1950s. Leda seems to represent the gay boy old guard, dressing in modest and geisha-like garb and staunchly asserting that even girls like Eddie and herself must “have their own pride”.
Eddie, by contrast, is all mini-skirts and false eyelashes, adorning herself in groovy Carnaby Street-esque fashions and getting stoned to psych-rock records with her hippie friends. She’s perhaps more comfortable in exhibiting an ‘inbetweenness’ in her gender identity too, at one point openly peeing at a public urinal alongside two of her girlfriends (in an instantly iconic tableau frame).
The conflict between the two characters memorably comes to a head in one of the film’s standout set-pieces, wherein Eddie and Leda first do battle as wild west gunslingers (armed with pop-guns), then engage in a Warholian speech-bubble-based slanging match (“whore!”, “impotent!”) and finally end up shedding wigs and bra-padding as they wrestle on the floor.
In the end, though, this is Eddie’s story. At the film’s outset, we watch her take one of the all-time great cinematic showers, utterly in love with her own youth and beauty. Such deliciously vain decadence pervades much of Funeral Parade of Roses, and the film’s combination of cynicism and youthful exuberance anticipates the punk rock cinema that would arrive at the next decade’s end. But it’s the disturbing revelations about Eddie’s upbringing and adolescence – which gradually reveal themselves across the film’s unconventional flashback structure – that emerge as the story’s dark heart. In this sense Funeral Parade of Roses has as much in common with the creeping psychodrama of Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion (1965) as it does with the arty irreverence of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978).
As Eddie’s grip on sanity begins to loosen, Matsumoto’s camera spends more and more time joined to her hip, and the sense of psychological interiority is only bolstered by the expressive, avant-garde editing style. This is perhaps the film’s most radical and forward-thinking choice: Eddie is not treated purely as a spectacle, an exotic ‘other’ to be gawped at. Instead, we are invited inside her head, her memories and her trauma.
By the time the film reaches its grisly and shocking final images, Matsumoto has rendered Eddie’s fall from grace both bitterly ironic and deeply poignant.