Canon Entry - Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Funeral Parade of Roses was so ahead of its time that it made so much of international cinema of the 60’s look tame in comparison. This is quite a statement when you consider that during the 60’s the French New Wave was in full swing, Britain was witnessing the works of the “Angry Young Men,” and even films behind the Iron Curtain were breaking convention (Czech New Wave). Though this film was not exactly playing in mainstream theaters in Japan at its release, its cultural impact is considerable, especially in the career of the main actor “Peter,” who would play the Fool in Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptation Ran and would become perhaps the most prominent gay icon in Japan for decades.
The film’s narrative is not particularly coherent, nor is it meant to be. At its center is Eddie (Peter) and his various adventures, which include working at a drag nightclub, participating in an experimental film of sorts, and his relationship with the older man Gonda, Yoshio Tsuchiya, which is where the Oedipus subplot kicks in. We see constant flashbacks to a picture of Eddie’s family with the man’s face being burned off by a lit cigarette by, we later learn, Eddie’s mom, whom Eddie apparently kills when he (at this point he is a he) catches her with another man.
The plot description doesn’t do much to illustrate the weird and exciting appeal of the film. It is far from a polished product and perhaps all of it is not deliberate. A lot of the acting isn’t particularly professional, though in some scenes director Toshio Matsumoto seems to play up the cheesiness for comic effort, such as the girl fight between Eddie and her other transgender friends. One usually doesn’t associate experimental films with humor, but there is plenty of it in this film, especially in the interactions between Eddie and his friends, who are very recognizably human and petty. There is even a melodramatic plot involving the “madam” of the club getting jealous of Eddie’s success, which could have come straight out of any soap opera. Much of the film’s striking imagery is also used for comical effect such as the still of the naked boys with one of them having a white flower stick out his anus. Matsumoto is signaling that is OK to laugh and have fun with this film because clearly he and the rest of the crew are as well.
The film’s collage-like nature is, I believe, mostly a result of there not being enough plot to really sustain a narrative feature. At times, it does feel like Matsumoto was trying to fill in gaps in with random bits of story like that aforementioned subplot with the madam. Other times, it is quite deliberate such as when Matsumoto intercuts interviews with “gay boys” in which he asks them questions about why they live the way they do and their status in society as gay boys. Though this probably isn’t the first time that documentary (or “faux documentary”) footage is intercut with fictional scenes, it makes a striking juxtaposition. They also serve as a reminder of the humanity of the subjects interviewed, since this film could probably have been dismissed as “obscene” or “morally aberrant” or, just as bad, that these men had a mental disease that made them act this way. Instead, we get complexity.
N.B. I think a viewer should remember that the interviewers and these “gay boys” do not have years and years of queer and gender theory to inform their questions and answers and that the “gay boy” culture was very much its own thing that needs to be viewed in terms of its context. I could anticipate someone finding the questions ignorant and offensive, (“Do you think what you are doing is wrong?”) but I think the interviewers are genuinely curious.
Ultimately, Funeral Parade of Roses is more than just some didactic manifesto of homosexuality and transgender identity though. It is a playful exploration of the division between imago and reality and how fluid they are. In this vein, the film is constantly tricking us into thinking that the events on screen are real when, quite unexpectedly, the scene will reveal itself as being filmed by the experimental film crew. This may make the film seem facile in some way in terms of having real emotional stakes, and it would almost be true if it weren’t for the last part of movie, which ends in tragedy.
The most shocking part of this movie is the Oedipus subplot in which we see Eddie as a boy and the trauma he underwent when his father left and his mother slowly turned into a uncaring lush (at least in his eyes). The Oedipus complex is dramatically turned on its head when we see Eddie kill his mother and end up sleeping with his father. The plot is high theater, but just like a lot of the Greek tragedies, this story has deep psychological roots, reinforced by decades of cultural inculcation. If anything, this subplot is not just an artsy avant-garde set piece, it is also a legitimization of Eddie’s desires. That he is a complex person and that is homosexuality or that his gender is not something to be manipulated by others to fit their conceptions of what is right. He can shift his identity around as much as he wants, but that right does not belong to anyone else. He is a person worthy of both comedy and tragedy - the whole spectrum of the human experience.