AKA: Bara no soretsu
Review By: Jeff
Funeral Parade of Roses takes place in, and serves as a valuable document of, the underground drag scene in late 1960s Tokyo. A confrontational, one-of-a kind work, the film is alternately gritty, arty, gory, and campy. This is a movie that could not have been made at any other time, or in any other place. But Funeral Parade of Roses is not just a celluloid time capsule; it is also a carefully crafted work of art.
The film is a retelling of Oedipus Rex, as well as a tale of backstage rivalry between two divas. The film primarily concerns a love triangle, in which the film’s protagonist, a young drag queen named Eddie, and an older drag queen named Leda, fight over the affections of a man named Gonda. Gonda is the proprietor of the Bar Genet; Leda runs the bar, and Eddie is her closest rival. Interspersed with this main narrative thread are various digressions and subplots, including a flashback to Eddie’s traumatic childhood, pseudo-documentary interview segments with the actors in the film and other drag queens, the exploits of a hippie filmmaking collective, and a few slapstick comedy sequences. The film ends tragically and gruesomely.
In his commentary track, director Toshio Matsumoto compares the film’s structure to a “mosaic.” The comparison is apt. The director breaks his scenes into tiny fragments, and then jumbles their chronological order. While each fragment is nearly incomprehensible in isolation, in the aggregate they constitute a comprehensible narrative. Although Matsumoto contends on his commentary track that there is “no significance” to how the film is structured, that clearly is not the case. As Matsumoto himself concedes at another point on the commentary track, his fragmentary technique is intended to simulate the way one can suddenly recollect a distant memory.
In addition to slicing and rearranging his narrative, Matsumoto employs a variety of other avant-garde devices, some of which were pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard. (It is probably no coincidence that, subsequent to the production of this film, Matsumoto’s assistant director translated Godard’s oeuvre into Japanese.) For example, screens of text appear at intervals throughout the film, commenting on the events and themes. (Interestingly, this device was resurrected recently by Kinji Fukasaku in his film version of Battle Royale). Also, to confront the viewer with the mechanics of the filmmaking process, many scenes are preceded by leader and/or a clapboard. To that end, a subplot of the film concerns the making of an underground film starring Eddie and the other drag queens at the Bar Genet; the viewer becomes increasingly unsure which scenes take place in the film’s main narrative and which are part of the “film within a film.”
The cinematography is just as carefully composed as the narrative. The largely handheld camerawork is remarkable; nearly every scene — even those featuring a flurry of chaotic activity — features deep focus, neatly balanced compositions, and dramatic shadow effects. The love scenes feature beautiful, high contrast, almost abstract close-ups of androgynous body parts, and are particularly breathtaking. The filmmakers even adeptly shoot several scenes on location inside a moving vehicle, whereas nearly every similar scene in mainstream Japanese films from this time period was shot in a studio using unconvincing rear projection effects.
Nonetheless, Funeral Parade of Roses is not as far removed from the mainstream Japanese film industry as one might imagine. Notably, the actor who plays Gonda, Yoshio Tsuchiya, was one of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai! Moreover, the noted director Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, Pale Flower) has a cameo in the film, as do many other figures from the Japanese art world. While most of the other actors in the film are amateurs, Matsumoto extracts excellent performances from them; they exhibit none of the blankness or overacting that one usually associates with amateur performances in films.
Notwithstanding these performers’ taboo-bursting depictions of sexuality, significant aspects of Funeral Parade of Roses are certainly problematic to the contemporary Western viewer. Although couched in classical allusion, at bottom this is yet another tale of a miserable queen with mommy and daddy issues who is doomed to a brief and tragic existence. One wishes Matsumoto would have presented a less fatalistic tale of gay Japanese life, or at least a less stereotypical one. Further, Funeral Parade of Roses is certainly a view from the outside, not the inside, of gay and countercultural life. Tellingly, almost all of the transvestite interviewees in the film’s quasi-documentary passages are asked loaded, trick questions, such as whether they ever plan on getting married. Moreover, the film’s depiction of drug use seems naive and unconvincing; the film equates drug use with pot parties where young people go-go dance in their underwear.
Beyond go-go dancing, the film is filled with other references to Western culture: from Jean Genet to Che Guevara to the Beatles. Given these Western influences and the film’s self-consciously “underground” attitude, once cannot help but compare it to The Chelsea Girls, one of the seminal American underground films of the time. The Chelsea Girls displays a nonjudgmental empathy for its gay and drug-addled subjects that is light years beyond the lurid, violent depictions of sexuality and drug use in Funeral Parade of Roses. Nonetheless, Funeral Parade of Roses is clearly the more rewarding, entertaining and accomplished of the two works; its gorgeous deep-focus photography, complex structure and layers of references stand in sharp contrast to the repetitive, overlong and haphazardly filmed The Chelsea Girls, which is a chore to sit through and appears to require the use of chemical substances to fully appreciate. While I would never watch The Chelsea Girls again unless I were paid to do so, I could watch Funeral Parade of Roses many more times, and would probably discover new details each time I saw it.
DVD Company: Eureka!/Masters of Cinema (http://www.eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/)
Masters of Cinema’s presentation of Funeral Parade of Roses is nothing short of stellar. The movie looks absolutely pristine, which is remarkable for an underground film of this vintage. The director’s commentary (in Japanese with English subtitles) provides valuable insight, as Matsumoto alternates between discussing the film’s themes, explaining his filmmaking technique, and pointing out various cameos. Mercifully, the video interview with the director is not duplicative of the audio commentary; instead, Matsumoto discusses his influences and explains how underground films such as his were produced and financed. The lavish booklet contains two lengthy essays. Musician/producer Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, etc.) provides an essay that explains how the film was shaped by politics, the Japanese film industry, and Matsumoto’s own career. Roland Domenig’s essay sets forth the history of the Art Theatre Guild, the institution that produced Funeral Parade of Roses.
Filed under: General and DVD Reviews: Japan and Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and DVD Reviews and Rating: Good ★★★ and Contributors: Jeff and DVD Companies: Masters of Cinema