Funeral Parade of Roses

At once an act of radical anthropology, an early entry into the slasher genre, a stoner classic and a metatextual comment on the act of filmmaking, Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 Funeral Parade of Roses is a Moebius strip of a film: whatever claim can be made for it reflexively loops back on itself until the opposite is also true. Transplanting Oedipus Rex onto the gay nightlife of Tokyo, the film depicts the struggle between Eddie and Leda, two Tokyo geibois (what we would now describe as trans women) fighting for power at their shared haunt: the Genet. Within the film’s fragmented universe, the boundaries between skin, sexuality and the cinematic image become riotously slippery.

A remarkable scene occurs early in the film. Eddie, played by mononymous actor Peter, has sex with an American soldier named Tony: the camera gazes upon Eddie’s made-up eyes and manicured fingernails against Tony’s hairy flesh, a display of trans intimacy which feels groundbreaking even by contemporary standards. Yet it takes on a Sadeian tone as the camera pans slowly towards a photo of Tony posing alongside the corpses of two Vietnamese bodies, violence and eroticism brushing queasily against one another. Suddenly, we hear a director yell “cut!”. The camera crew filming the scene is revealed, the barrier between fiction and reality is abruptly broken, and Peter is interviewed about his performance. In one fell swoop, Matsumoto moves through the scene’s representational desire, exposes its fallacy, and reorients the “reality” of the scene onto Peter. But this cut has problematised our trust in what we’re seeing: Peter is still “playing” himself, even when he is presented to us in a realist mode. If the subjective self is always a performance, a series of masks covering up a void, can we ever truly be “known”?

Matsumoto’s background was in the 1950s Japanese avant-garde, collaborating with radical art collectives Jikken Kōbō and Zero Jigen, whose actions are featured within the film’s dizzying montage. A prolific short filmmaker, Matsumoto coined the term Neo-documentarism for his output, arguing that exposing the manipulation of the image came closer to representing “reality” than the motifs of realist documentary. This sense of formal play flows throughout Funeral Parade via its cheeky visual metaphors – bananas heartily throated and beer poured until it froths out of the glass – as well as winking references to Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou in the final blinding scene. The same can be said for the film’s interviews with the various wasters of the contemporary drug culture. The character of Guevara, a filmmaker tweaked out on amphetamines and cannabis, sporting a fake beard and pontificating on the meaning of love is the director winking at himself. Like the director’s closest comparison Dušan Makavejev (indeed, Funeral Parade would make an excellent double bill with the latter’s W.R. Mysteries of the Organism), carnivalesque music gives even the film’s ugliest scenes a campy energy, notably a hilarious, Chaplin-esque run-in with a Ronettes-style girl gang. 

Gei is the operative term used both by and in reference to the characters in Funeral Parade, yet is one that doesn’t neatly fit the Western “gay”. Given that sodomy has never been illegal in Japan, and lacking a prevailing religious authority to organise against, the queer terminology in Japan was and remains diffuse. The term geiboi, referring to effeminate men and trans women working within Western-style establishments, is arguably more cultural than the Western identarian “gay”. Indeed, in spite of the Freudian elements of its plot, Funeral Parade is refreshingly ambivalent towards how sexuality has informed the characters’ psychologies. In the vox pop interviews with local geibois, the participants do not know and, crucially, appear uninterested in “why” they identify as such. Even Eddie’s molestation by his father and eventual murder of his mother is not necessarily sexual in nature, merely contiguous with the film’s radical energy. Indeed, there is not much “why” in Matsumoto’s film, just a lot of thrilling “is”: neither an affirmation of ideology nor a psychological study, Funeral Parade of Roses is best summarised by a character quoting Jonas Mekas midway through the film, “all definitions of cinema have been erased. The door is now wide open.”

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