Funeral Parade of Roses
Director / Screenplay: Toshio Matsumoto / Editing: Toshie Iwasa / DP: Tatsuo Suzuki / Music: Joji Yuasa
Cast: Pîtâ / Osamu Ogasawara / Yoshimi Jô / Koichi Nakamura / Yoshio Tsuchiya
And Now For Something Completely Different…
Funeral Parade of Roses: even the very title suggests a film out of the ordinary, which is just as well, as ‘Roses is exactly that: released in 1969 and shot in B&W, this experimental, feverish and brave film is a product – if not a high-point – of the Japanese ‘New Wave’; a movement inspired by the European arthouse, as filtered through Japan’s own post-war reinvention. So uniquely inspired was writer / director Matsumoto’s tale of feuding drag queens in Tokyo, that Kubrick himself later acknowledged the film’s influence on A Clockwork Orange (1971).
But just how did such a film come to be made, in late-Sixties Tokyo?
Before World War 2, the Japanese film industry found itself in a creative cul-de-sac, as studios and cinemas fell into a loose cartel, formed by a few holding companies. Now that a studio’s output could only be shown in its own cinemas, the end result was a stifling of creativity, driven by the need to produce ‘hits’ in order to put bums-on-seats. Would-be auteurs vowing independence might strike-out from beneath a studio’s shadow, only to crawl back later to secure distribution. During the war itself – and, in parallel to Nazi Germany – restrictions on content & theme were imposed centrally, for the preservation of both morale & resources, in a further tamping-down on true creative expression. The people wanted to be reminded of a Glorious Past, before their cities had become smouldering ash heaps, whereas the Government needed propaganda to keep them fighting for a ‘Glorious Tomorrow’. These twin imperatives came together in a slew of formulaic pictures, that did little but keep the local industry on life-support.
With American Occupation at war’s end, a more relaxed approach was adopted. As a new generation matured, unshackled by a militaristic outlook and encouraged by a new, Western-leaning political class, so the Japanese avant-garde embraced the cinematic New Wave emerging in France and elsewhere. Writer/Director Toshio Matsumoto was involved in this nascent rise – or re-birth – of Japanese film, but as the Cold War developed apace and America turned its gaze towards the USSR & China, Japan’s new political masters struggled to assert themselves. Within the film industry, the new talents that’d only recently been encouraged, now found themselves frozen-out once more, as the studio cartel retrenched into conservatism.
The crucial difference this time, as far as young film-makers were concerned, was that there were at least avenues of financial & technical support available, from the political left. In addition, studio consolidation meant fewer films were being produced, yet their cinema chains couldn’t rely on the constant string of re-releases to bulk-out the schedules, so were glad to screen films made by this emergent, defiant generation; films that their own studios would never – COULD never – have produced! Thus was the Japanese New Wave born.
All of which brings us back to ‘Roses. Director Matsumoto received a tiny budget for the film, from the now-defunct ‘ATG’ outfit (‘The Art Theatre Guild’) that, at its height, owned around ten art-house cinemas in Tokyo, thus guaranteeing distribution to young directors outside the Studio System. There was no need for directors to go elsewhere, as ATG had found a business model that worked well for them at the time, producing many internationally-regarded films until its closure in the mid-Eighties (ironically thanks to the bigger studios rediscovering their cajones when it came to the films they green-lit).
‘Roses was shot in and around Tokyo’s East Shinjuku District; a dense warren of illicit clubs, bars and pachinko arcades, filled with poets, writers and other players in the city’s underground scene. Its plot is simplistic to say the least: a pair of drag queens, Eddie & Leda, are vying for the attentions of Gonda, the proprietor/manager of the hostess club in which they work. When Gonda opts to be with Eddie, Leda kills herself in dramatic, theatrical fashion in a development that appals everyone. Yet this is only the beginning of the end, as Eddie then undergoes an Oedipal revelation that seals her fate along with Gonda’s.
Along the way, we also learn of the reason why Eddie (brilliantly played by cult icon Pîtâ) ‘became’ a drag queen in the first place: if there could ever be a primary reason for igniting someone’s sexual identity, then what we’re shown, with graphic, splattery abandon, might go some way. Whilst wholly Matsumoto’s take on the Oedipal myth, he acknowledges the influence of Pasolini’s more faithful adaptation, with the inclusion of posters for Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967) in a few shots; a cute nod to his Neo-Realist contemporary.
Yet for all that, ‘Roses is a deft, brave film made by a young film-maker unafraid to bend the rules (as all young film-makers should be, in case you wondered).
‘Roses is also a film about masks. The masks we wear (i.e. make-up) to project a new identity to the world, to bolster and reinforce our self-image, self-confidence and the very idea we have of ourselves: our internal narrative. Equally, the masks we hide behind, being too shy, timid or plain inhibited to step-out into the World without their protection. We self-shame through the masks we choose to identify with.
There are ACTUAL masks, too, as seen by the members of ‘Funeral Parade of Roses’: an experimental troupe of (real) performance artists, active in the city at the time. Here, they’re seen in a slow, methodical procession, each wearing face masks and carrying in their left hands, symbolic white boxes. What they contain is never explained (Roses?) but then it shouldn’t be: the work is appreciated differently by all who experience it. Beauty is in the conscious mind of the beholder…
Folded into this experiential film, is Matsumoto’s approach to pursuing narrative. He breaks the ‘fourth wall’ constantly, as we see him ‘directing’ his actors on one occasion; on another, he includes brief interviews with his players, as they talk about their parts in the film and their aspirations beyond the shoot. Memorably, he also repeats at random, a shot of an identity parade of figures I took to be male, who are all nude and have their backs – and arses – to the camera. The last in the row (who I took to be Eddie) has a flower emerging from his butt.
Around these idiosyncrasies, Matsumoto adds flash-backs and flash-forwards, to further disrupt what we think of as straightforward narrative; he’s doing everything he can as a director, to make us think about the images we’re watching: images that, occasionally, disturb, provoke and unsettle AT THE SAME TIME… That the film picks and chooses its influences with a Magpie’s enthusiasm is a given. It owes a debt to the documentary stylings of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and certain of the themes in Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959). The film’s arresting cinematography can be linked to that employed by Pasolini himself, both in Oedipus and The Gospel According to Matthew (all those enigmatic close-ups). I’m sure there are many, many more tips-of-the-hat to other film-makers of whose work I’m unaware, but the effect is to build a picture of Matsumoto’s tastes and influences. Its tone is mostly offbeat, thanks to its structure & editing, yet leavened by the occasional bursts of humour: who can resist the line of drag queens using the urinals in the men’s room? This is not a film towards which one remains indifferent; its content is too confrontational for that. It delights in picking-over human frailties, however – and wherever – it finds them: and isn’t that an aspect of Oedipus himself?
‘Roses is also an important film within Gay Cinema. Its matter-of-fact depiction of the Tokyo underground scene, including a bowdlerised (though artfully over-exposed) sex scene, is like an act of defiance in itself. Remember, that the paternal, militaristic febrility which had led the country to ruin, was just twenty-five years distant when ‘Roses appeared, which seems remarkable to me. That something so bold, so subversive, could emerge so quickly is almost predictable after decades of repressive, introspective misery.
Put it this way: if we look at British or American films of the period, there’s nothing being made to compare with ‘Roses. The UK was all about Hammer’s schlock, or the bawdiness of the Carry Ons, with precious little else out of the mainstream, other than the ‘kitchen sink’ pioneers such as Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, etc., but no Brits were tackling the subject of homosexuality, let alone transvestism! The moral climate prevailing at the time (think Mary Whitehouse, rather than the Summer of Love), just wouldn’t allow such films to be made, let alone distributed. It’s for the celebration of such permissive enlightenment as much as anything, that I’m celebrating the film here.
As a film? It’s not without its problems. The central plot’s forward momentum is hazy at-times, because of the diversions playing out around it and some of those aren’t wholly successful in their application (which I’d say were limited by budget), but it just about hangs together as a spectacle. We’re not here because of its STORYTELLING, let’s be honest.
Put it this way: you might love or hate the film, but you can’t ignore it as a cultural milestone, both within its country of origin and its genre. This might be, then, the best / worst film you’ll ever see about Japanese transvestite ‘Gay-Boys’ and that’s a sentence I wasn’t expecting to write today…
I am the wound and the blade, both the torturer and the one who is flayed.