My favorite movies are the ones that defy me, that dare me to try and wrap my arms around them. Every aspect of Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade Of Roses shouts defiance: its non-linear, non-narrative narrative; its polymorphous and anarchic sexuality; its free embrace of everything from Douglas Sirk melodrama to vérité filmmaking to knockabout farce to blood-spattered horror; its lead role, inhabited by one of modern Japan's most flamboyant and outré public figures. All of this comes by way of what amounts to several films in one: a love triangle in Tokyo's homosexual underworld, a docu-manifesto for personal erotic freedom and social protest, and a modern-day retelling of a certain classic tragedy. I won't say which tragedy; that would ruin the fun. And now that it's available again to English-speaking audiences in a lustrous 4K remaster, you deserve to discover for yourself just how much this one-of-a-kind movie dares to do, and how completely it gets away with all of it.
Are you ready, Eddie?
Tokyo, 1969. Student protesters tear up curbstones and pelt riot police; hippie pads roil with marijuana smoke; and the tables and sofas of the bar "Genet" are populated by cross-dressing hostesses, providing a welcoming haven for homosexual clients. Top star of the "gay boys" in Club Genet is Eddie (Peter, née Shinnosuke Ikehata), a lithe young spirit notable both for her freewheeling attitude and convincingly feminine beauty. She (both the movie's subs and included literature says "she") has caught the eye of the club's owner, Gonda (perennial tough-guy actor Yoshio Tsuchiya), attractive and masculine despite being some twenty-plus years Eddie's senior, and so the two nip off for passionate trysts.
But their pleasures are short-lived, because both of them live in fear of being discovered by the bar's madam, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). Leda, with her classical kimono and coif, is the product of an earlier age of drag-queen-dom. She resents Eddie not just for being more attractive, but for embodying the spirit of a younger, more freewheeling generation. To that end, she keeps Gonda on a leash: he and Leda have to make nice, or Leda goes to the cops with all the details about the little impromptu pharmaceutical distribution system Gonda runs out of the back of the club with the help of a black American G.I.
Eddie puts up a good front. Inside, she's harboring a boiling broth of bad childhood memories. Born a boy, but never comfortable as one, Eddie was barely more than a baby when his dad ditched out on him and Mom. Mom's response was to burn Dad's face out of the family photo with a cigarette, and to bring a succession of other men through the household to satisfy her longings — some of whom had designs on Eddie as much as they did Mom. And then there was that moment (imagined? real?) when Eddie seized up a knife, stabbed Mom's latest boyfriend to death, and then Mom as well. But maybe it's fine if everything before a certain point in Eddie's life is a blur; what matters most is the here-and-now.
And in many ways, the here-and-now is a blast. Aside from Gonda and his warm attention, Eddie enjoys hanging out with her art-rebel friend Guevara, participating in his bizarre filmmaking projects, getting stoned and partying with the dropouts and weirdoes and hangers-on that form his inner circle. There, it doesn't matter which way you swing as long as you swing, period. But Leda's putting the squeeze on Eddie and Gonda from different directions, and all that pressure might be catalyst enough to cause someone to blow their top.
A wrecking ball for the fourth wall
It's been said that modern mainstream entertainment is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than anything we had even thirty years ago. Most of us have casual experience with techniques like non-linear storytelling (see: your average episode of 24), even if we don't know the term. Roses arrived at a time when telling a story by way of flashbacks, -forwards, and -asides was still novel, and so a lot of praise for the movie's style stemmed from the way it made use of those still-groundbreaking techniques. We start somewhere in the middle of the goings-on, with Eddie and Gonda in a lovemaking session away from Leda's prying eyes. All that's happening in Eddie's life is then filled in by way of a freeform succession of scenes that don't need to be in any particular order to be understood. What matters is the flavor of the whole — knowing, for instance, that Eddie and Leda eye each other with suspicion.
What makes Roses's fractured style not seem dated, I think, is the way Matsumoto just plain has fun with it and lets us share that feeling. When Leda and Eddie come to blows over Gonda, they first shout at each other in freeze frames with insults appearing between them in manga-style cartoon balloons. Then they engage in a Keystone Kops-style hair-pulling and wardrobe-tearing match, filmed at double-speed with rinky-dink calliope music on the soundtrack. (Stanley Kubrick has admitted the movie's influence on A Clockwork Orange.) The fracturing of time even extends outside of the narrative itself: when the Eirin movie-certification-authority logo appears, it's halfway through the film, not at the beginning or end as it normally would be. The movie's meant to be as sly and cheeky and as jab-in-the-ribs as anything else.
Roses was filmed in the very milieu it's about, and with the very people that populated it. Almost none of the actors, save for Tsuchiya, were professionals. Peter, later an outspoken advocate for gay and transgender life, was a club dancer before Matsumoto scouted her and her friends in the lead roles. They essentially play themselves, with a zest and a campy zeal that fits the material. What's remarkable is how Matsumoto calls further attention to this by way of asides where he interviews the actors about the movie and their roles in it, or about their lives as "gay boys". Their lives, he seems to be saying, are themselves performances, and they are quite conscious and accepting of this fact — just as Eddie puts on a party-hearty front to hide the psychological collapse building inside of her.
My feeling is that Matsumoto uses his live-or-Memorex? narrative strategy to force us to think as much as we can about who the "real" Eddie is. One of Eddie's love scenes is cut short when we pop back to see she's on a film set, with the director calling "Cut!" Ostensibly it's Matsumoto pulling back the curtain on the movie itself, but it could also be Eddie taking part in some film project orchestrated by her friend Guevara. Either way, it's a performance, each with its own implications, and Matsumoto is suggesting we need to not become complacent about that when watching. In another movie, this wrecking of the fourth wall would have been annoying or self-indulgent, but the thread of Eddie's personality is so strong that it carries us through everything that happens, and in every form it's expressed, all the way to the bitter end.
Matsumoto is barely known outside of academic circles in Japan, and that's a shame. Originally a medical student, he switched to art history, then became a major proponent of a school of envelope-pushing documentary filmmaking that incorporated surrealism and fourth-wall-breaking techniques to make their points. Funeral Procession Of Roses, made in 1969, came after Matsumoto had already fused documentary and experimental filmmaking across the course of several other projects, such as For The Damaged Right Eye and The Song Of Stone. It made perfect sense that for his first formal narrative feature film, he'd partner with the likes of the Art Theatre Guild, the avant-garde production company that worked with minimal budgets and maximal boundary-pushing. The score came by way of Jōji Yuasa, a regular Matsumoto collaborator with plenty of avant-garde credits to his name. Here he provided a a mix of goofy organ music and unsettling electronic atmospheres, a nice encaspulation of how the movie is both playful and jarring (and sometimes both at once).
Matsumoto only directed four feature films in his lifetime, but two — Roses, and the nihilistic samurai story Shura — are such masterworks, and in such dissimilar ways, it's not hard to see why it might have been hard for him to top himself. He also directed a live-action adaptation of Yumeno Kyūsaku's infamous surreal horror novel Dogura Magura, a very brave attempt indeed to film the unfilmable, and a movie I admire more for the effort it makes than for the payoffs it provides. (I haven't been able to see his fourth movie, War Of A Sixteen-Year-Old, as no edition exists with English subtitles yet.) Roses has all the narrative-shattering boldness of Magura, but it's aimed in a totally different direction. Magura lands in more Philip K. Dick territory, where the hero questions his own reality, while Roses is more aimed at the viewer's own presumptions about what's being shown and why.
What with most of its cast gender-bent in some form, it seems inevitable Roses would be labeled as an early specimen of LGBTQ cinema. Emphasis, I think, on the early, as Matsumoto's approach to documenting homosexuality and transvestism isn't as refined as we might expect it today. The interviews he conducts on camera don't really parse out the differences between those who merely cross-dress, those who identify as male-but-gay, and those who identify entirely as female. Some of that is further confused, perhaps deliberately so, by the liaisons Eddie has with Gonda and Guevara. It's not clear whether Gonda and Guevara identify as gay or bisexual, or are just partaking of the open-ended hedonism of the times, where any sex could be good, especially if it was a thumb in the eye of authority.
Things like this actually date Funeral Parade Of Roses a little more noticeably than the hippie-crash-pad counter-culture milieu it swims around in. In truth, the 1960s-era trappings of the movie feel a lot fresher and more striking than I thought they would. I suspect a big reason for that is because we're seeing Japan's 1960s counterculture, not the U.S./Western version of it. The general flavor may be the same, but the specific details aren't. English-speaking viewers who aren't intimately acquainted with those particular times and manners will experience a distancing effect that makes the whole thing feel less dated.
Roses has gone all but unseen by Western audiences until now. For the longest time the only way to watch it at all was by way of the (very) occasional film festival screening, or via bootlegs adapted from the Japanese home video release. A DVD edition did surface in the UK, but region limitations and TV system coding all but guaranteed it would go unseen except by the hardcore faithful who already knew of it. The current Cinelicious edition rectifies all of that and then some: it's been derived from a new 4K remaster, and comes with detailed liner notes about Matsumoto and his career, plus a bonus disc of his short films from the same period. I do wish some of the extras on the UK edition could have been ported over; this version has running commentary by Nipponocinephile Chris D., but the UK version had commentary from Matsumoto himself, an interview with him, and a 40-page book with notes by Jim O'Rourke and Roland Domenig.
I'm holding out hope the rest of Matsumoto's remarkable career will be documented for English-speaking viewers, but just having Roses around is already more than I could have hoped for.