Of the four feature films Toshio Matsumoto made in his career, his first feature film Funeral Parade of Roses remains the most famous and most influential. And now, courtesy of the BFI, UK audiences are, for the first time, able to enjoy this experimental movie in high definition. To celebrate the upcoming Blu-ray release, let’s re-evaluate its themes and explore why it still remains as special as it was when it was first released.
[A 2-disc blu-ray is available by BFI]
Eddie (Peter), one of most popular ‘girls’ at Gay Bar Genet, is having an affair with Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the bar’s financial manager and a drug runner. He promises her to make Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the current mama of Genet, quit and make her the leading lady of the transvestite bar. But Eddie, who thinks she has stolen Gonda from Leda, fears Leda’s revenge. Gonda tries to ease both his two lovers, but Leda is not planning to let Eddie’s behaviour go unpunished.
The Funeral parade of Roses – and this must be made clear – does not offer a true re-evaluation of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex but rather a transformation of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Oedipus rex. While many, due to Freud’s lasting impact on society, will be tempted to classify Matsumoto’s narrative as Freudian or, at least, as a parody of Freud’s Oedipus complex, the transposition of said complex to a later age and the naive reversal of the position of the mother and the father underline that Matsumoto’s main source is Sophocles’ tragedy (Narra-note 1). In other words, The Funeral parade of Roses does not address what the Freudian’s Oedipus complex is about, which is the birth of subjectivity and desire.
But if Funeral parade of Roses is not about oedipal rivalry, what is then about? It is not about politics. The political unrest of the 60’s – the student protests against the military presence of USA in Japan – might form the back for the narrative, this backdrop acts as a contextual but largely unrelated frame for Eddie’s story of trauma and subjective unrest. In fact, the quote by which the narrative ends, ‘The spirit of an individual reaches its own absolute through incessant negation’, allows us to unpack what Matsumoto’s narrative is about. Matsumoto says, with his narrative, nothing other than the fact that one can only become a true subject by accepting the void that one as subject is, that is to say by not letting oneself be defined by the alluring but deceptive self-images or masks that cover up that void. It is only then that one, as subject, can attain some sort of subjective freedom as well as a true subjective desire.
In Funeral parade of Roses Matsumoto tackles the deceptiveness of self-images and the void that subjectivity is through the lens of cross-dressing and homosexuality (Narra-note 2). Matsumoto’s narrative is therefore not only an evocative exploration of what subjectivity is, but also an interesting and thought-provoking exploration of the Japanese cultural phenomenon of gay boys.
What does the interaction between Gonda and Eddie teach us? Concerning Gonda, it seems that he can only engage in homosexual relations if the other party acts and dresses up as a woman. For Gonda to be able to sexually enjoy the (wo)man with a penis, Eddie and Leda need to disguise/mask their maleness with feminine ornaments. But it also works the other way around. Only disguised as a woman – via speech and via comportment – can Eddie sexually engage with Gonda. Only by meeting each other as man and woman at the level of the (deceptive) image, can Gonda and Eddie engage in their homosexuality.
The emphasis of the deceptive nature of the imaginary in Funeral Parade of Roses also allows us to underline another dimension that marks cross-dressing. The respective female images these men clothe themselves with are always ideal images of womanhood (Narra-note 3). If Eddie and Leda are visually different as women, it is because the ideal image they as male-sexed subjects have of how the ideal woman should look like radically differs. Yet, despite their differences, the ideal images our ‘gay boys’ realize seem to be inspired by the discredited modes of ‘traditional’ femininity embodied by the post-war dansho, cross-dressing male prostitutes.
The evocative and somewhat cyclic unfolding of Eddie’s narrative is disrupted by the insertion of semi-documentary sequences, sequences where the act of filming is filmed as such, i.e. behind-the-scene sequences, and sequences where Matsumoto interviews, among others, real-life members of Tokyo’s gay and transvestite scene. These interview sequences, which further contextualize Matsumoto’s fictional narrative, allow Matsumoto to further explore and complicate the theme of homosexuality and cross-dressing in Japan (Narra-note 4). One ‘gay-boy’, for instance, underlines that he likes being a girl, but that he does not want to become a real girl. Another ‘gay-boy’, for that matter, tells us that he likes being gay, but that he does not like men.
To understand these discrepancies and to better understand Funeral parade of Roses as a whole, we need to explain what the term gay-boy means. The signifier gay-boy does, and this is important, not mean necessarily mean that one is gay – sexual preference is, as underlined by the narrative, only of secondary importance. The signifier is, first and foremost, used for those cross-dressing performers providing entertainment for guests at bars, like how female hostesses entertain their guests. Gay boys perform their female image to entertain guests, and guests, attracted by this enticing display of femininity, happily allow themselves to be deceived (Narra-note 5).
Funeral Parade of Roses is, from start to finish, an aesthetic treat. Even though straightforward moments are present in the cinematographical composition, the spectator will only remember Matsumoto’s more formal experimental new-wave escapades and the overall visual flair of his montage (Cine-note 1). The latter is most evident in the erotic sequences of The Funeral parade of Roses. With his artistic sense of composition, using, for instance, the interplay of bodies and the dreamy lightning-design as compositional devices, and his eloquent use of cinematographical movement, Matsumoto succeeds in crafting satisfying visual moments. The beauty of these imagery is, furthermore, empowered by exquisite musical accompaniment.
With his formal visual experiments, Matsumoto also succeeds in infusing some more comical moments into Funeral Parade of Roses. Especially, the farcically speeded-up cat-fight sequences, empowered by comically inspired music, stand out. If these sequences remind the spectator of Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange they are not incorrect, as Funeral Parade of Roses was a major inspiration for Kubrick.
Funeral Parade of Roses is a must-see, one-of-kind cinematic experience that one cannot miss. Even so, its highly evocative and poetics might confuse spectators of what Matsumoto is trying to say. Matsumoto’s narrative is neither a celebration of subculture nor a condemnation of intolerance, but a highly experimental and intense exploration of how the images we clothe ourselves with makes us blind for what truly grounds us as subject.
Narra-note 1: Another narrative element that reveals that Sophocles’ tragedy was the main inspiration for the narrative is the act of gauging out of the eyes.
Narra-note 2: The deceptive nature of the imaginary is also emphasized by the gallery-sequence where Eddie, while looking at pictures on the walls, hears about the nature of masks. People, as is evoked, present themselves as masked in their interactions with others, thereby hiding their subjectivity to the other.
This sequence urges us to consider that cross-dressing, often understood to express one’s subjectivity, is a peculiar kind of mask, a mask not only hiding one’s penis but also one’s subjectivity. But it also subtly underlines that, due to the sociological and psychological nature of the mask, it does not matter what image, male or female, you clothe yourself with. If one is too attached to such image, one effaces one’s subjectivity.
Narra-note 3: The fact that these gay boys become more woman, fulfill a certain ideal of femininity better, than biological women is highlighting in a catfight-sequence when one of the gay boys calls the yankee girls merely ordinary women.
Narra-note 4: Another interview sequence is focused on drug-use (i.e. Marijuana) and use of medication. These interview sequences also offer an additional contextualization for the drug use in the fictional narrative. There is also an interview sequence with Peter, who portrays Eddie, in the narrative.
Narra-note 5: The end of the narrative shows in a very dramatic way that Eddie did not see how his indulgence in the image of femininity made it unable to address his subjectivity as being a void.
Cine-note 1: Matsumoto makes great use of jump-cuts, fast montages, and intertitles.