Image Credit: Art Theatre Guild
Content warning: this review has references to transphobia and homophobia
In the closing months of 1969, Funeral Parade of Roses released with more of a whimper than a bang. While the content was far ahead of its time, the film remained obscure to critics and audiences alike. Even in the internet-age, very little information can be found on Toshio Matsumoto’s first foray into narrative filmmaking. It’s important to remember, however, that films like this do not appear out of a vacuum. What makes Funeral Parade such a landmark in LGBT+ cinema is not just the unique subculture it illuminates, but the radical attempt to articulate the unarticulated, treating its marginalised figures with respect and solidarity.
Using the template of Oedipus Rex, Funeral Parade explores an unlikely odyssey where Eddie (played by Pītā) navigates the queer spaces of underground Tokyo, becoming the main hostess of a gay bar. Eddie’s ascension, however, as implied by the Oedipal elements, is marred by violence both physical and symbolic. Alas, despite Greek tragedy lending structure to its fragmented narrative, the film actively defies words or categorisation.
It’s difficult to say whether Matsumoto was deliberate in avoiding definitions or if the terminology simply wasn’t available. This is epitomised by Eddie living life as a ‘gay boy’, despite being closer to what we might now think of as non-binary or possibly transgender. Eddie, alongside other non-conforming characters except Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), give no indication as to how they identify themselves. ‘Gay boy’ thus becomes a precarious label, a blanket term for anyone of a non-heteronormative identity.
Take the interspersed scenes, for example, where a documentarian questions ‘gay boys’. The camera is intrusive, the questions are ignorant, yet these non-conforming subjects innocuously proclaim their identities. When asked “why” they are a ‘gay boy’, one of them simply states, “I was born that way”. Later, when Matsumoto completely breaks the fourth wall, Pītā is asked why they took the role of Eddie: “I come from a similar environment (...) [the film] portrays gay boys beautifully”. As Sally Jane Black notes, ‘their voices are given more credibility than the interviewer, the director, the filmmakers entirely’, firmly establishing ‘the heart of the film’s sympathy’.
Through cinéma vérité the film bridges two opposing worlds of spectator and the ‘other’, allowing the latter a chance to express their existence. Moreover, Matsumoto initiates a turning point in his filmography, away from short films that examined the socio-economic tensions of US occupied Japan. The formal elements of these documentaries, although experimental in editing and sound, were relatively constrained. Funeral Parade, on the other hand, is technically and narratively provocative, bombarding the viewer with hidden spaces and unimagined possibilities.
This is most notable within the editing and cinematography, which borrow heavily from New Wave movements across Europe. While the handheld camerawork is reminiscent of Varda, the non-linear editing is pure Godard. Likewise, there are a number of intimate close-ups that mirror the works of Resnais and Bergman. As a result, Matsumoto blurs the lines between reality and fiction, mastering the techniques of his contemporaries to create an impenetrable collage of queer existence.
That’s not to say that Funeral Parade wasn’t technically and culturally innovative. Among the films it influenced, quite famously, is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. How or why Kubrick watched the film, considering its limited distribution, is purely speculative. But several moments are imitated in his 1971 classic: a Warholian mouth, a sped-up sequence, a tracking shot that involves phallocentric ice lollies. Beyond the visual, both films find commonality in their depiction of counter-culture. This is where, many will argue, Matsumoto’s film truly shines - documenting a distant, yet prevalent epoch of history.
This is best exemplified by an entourage of hippies led by the aptly-named Guevara (Oyosaburo Uchiyama). Some of the most iconic scenes feature this group, from an extensive one-shot of them passing the blunt, to creating and watching their own experimental short film titled Ecstasis. They’re as cool as they are comical but their hearts, not so much their drug-frazzled minds, are in the right place.
After all, the hippies’ acceptance of Eddie goes beyond tokenism. Unlike the highly competitive gay bar, there is no room for gossip or contempt. The only room the hippies do inhabit is perhaps the closest to a utopia, a retreat from the political turmoil of late '60s Tokyo. Consequently, the film’s most striking images are when Eddie occupies both spaces, dancing candidly to rock music, revelling in the vitality of youth.
A similar euphoria is created in one of the film’s most enduring images - Eddie’s shower. In this scene, Matsumoto subverts the voyeuristic violence of Hitchcock’s Psycho by allowing the non-conforming protagonist a moment of pure, unadulterated self-love. While the camera can be interpreted as channeling a voyeurism of its own - gazing on the protagonist’s backside and freeze-framing the nipples - Eddie’s beauty remains forever immortalised.
Whether it’s a shower or the dancefloor, Eddie finds sanctuary within these spaces, safe from the streets of Tokyo and all its hostile glances. In one particularly distressing sequence Eddie is catcalled and stalked, forced to take refuge in a museum. Although the surrealist elements are strong, there is an objective truth overpowering this moment: Eddie’s existence is threatened on a day-to-day basis. To live beautifully is also to look over one’s shoulder.
Henceforth, Funeral Parade’s greatest flaw is perhaps how queerness remains tethered to certain inevitabilities. There is something incredible about these communities, and the beauty found within them, being documented without judgement. On the other hand, Eddie is constantly escaping a certain trauma; one that is inexorably violent and pervades the film’s narrative.
Without spoiling, Matsumoto takes the viewer to dark places, ones that are buried within the protagonist’s subconscious. People who relate to Eddie might applaud the film’s determination to explore every facet of this character; others might see it as perpetuating cinematic tropes of queer people that degrade what is otherwise a very thoughtful and progressive film.
Ultimately however, there’s a reason why Funeral Parade of Roses has reemerged in recent times. Eddie’s character goes beyond violence and discrimination; Eddie also acquires the power to resist, and to retaliate when necessary - ‘I am a wound and a blade, the torturer and the flayed’. Eddie’s resistance comes in the form of existing and cinema becomes the ultimate preservation of this fact.
Sally Jane Black sums it up perfectly: ‘three gay boys at the urinals destroys every other queer film imagery ever’.
Editor’s Note: Funeral Parade of Roses is available on BFI Player