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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

The 60s had some of the most radically charged works in cinema. Although a lot of people attribute the 70s to being the decade that really changed everything in regards to where the medium currently sits, you cannot ignore the groundwork laid down in order for it to do so from the decade preceding it. Of course, each decade will have new forms of reimaginings and breakings of the mould, but the 60s in particular, was a radically major product of its time – a decade of sexual, cultural and political revolutions (just to name a few), it’s only fitting that it was a decade that gave us films that tapped into these truly revolutionary uprisings in voices and identities. Funeral Parade of Roses is one of those films that truly pushed the boundaries in film’s ability to confront and provoke audiences, challenging them in new ways.

Released in 1969, Funeral Parade of Roses owes much to the game changing works of the French New Wave that burst from the earth in the late 50s, particularly that of the highly idealistic and abrasive works of Jean-Luc Godard, who at this point was getting progressively more political and left of center in his filmmaking evolution. Upon first glance, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses could easily be from the same batch of the ultra-stylish and inventive works of the French New Wave, but it’s important to note Japan’s own New Wave movement of the time, who were also rewriting the rules and reinventing the wheel within the cinematic medium. Filmmakers like Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, and Hiroshi Teshigahara (just to name a few) had formed their own unique visual languages and narrative approach by tackling themes and ideas not really common in the more traditional, often feudal-set films from the great Japanese masters. And although a free-form sexual revolution was happening the world over, there were very few films that would tackle gay and lesbian themes, let alone ones with trans characters tackling themes relating to gender and sexual identity within an overwhelmingly heterosexual world. So, Funeral Parade of Roses isn’t just a majorly important piece of queer filmmaking in Japan, it’s a vital, and most certainly a revolutionary piece of queer film history that still proves to be way ahead of its time in critical thinking and its ability to poke, prod and evoke the most visceral of responses.

The story that unfolds has all the characteristics of a great Greek tragedy set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Japan with the youth embracing progressive thinking through identity, sexuality, inclusion, expressive freedom and to be quite frank, psychedelic drugs. Eddie (played by transgender actor Shinnosuke Ikehata adopting her stage name of Peter) is a transgender woman living in the middle of this melting pot of expanding ideas. Working as a hostess at a local gay club, she begins an affair with the club’s owner Gondo (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who is already in a relationship with his club’s star drag queen Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). Eddie soon finds herself struggling to balance the ever-changing dynamics of her career and love life as both her and Gondo try to keep their relationship a secret from Leda.

Funeral Parade of Roses stakes its claim as not only one of the most stylish films of its time (hell, one of the most stylish films ever) through unparalleled filming and editing techniques that elevates its heavy surrealist tones, it also happens to still be one of the most forward-thinking films of its time that still manages to confound our expectations of how we perceive gay and trans representation in film through story and characters. Funeral Parade of Roses challenges not only ours, but the film’s own perceptions as well through shifts in style and narrative structure that still manages to stay within the bounds of the film’s overarching motifs. The film often slips into documentary mode as we interview gay and trans individuals as well as the film’s stars in and out of character, film-within-a-film segments, avant-garde short film vignettes, random title cards brandishing evocative thoughts and observations, etc. Each one of these stylistic changes is important in Matsumoto’s constantly evolving thought process in the film as he grows with each passing moment, further understanding the themes and ideas he is bringing to the table.

Matsumoto makes extensive use of masks and mirrors throughout the film. He often plays with the idea of hiding underneath a fake mask portrayed to the world, obscuring a dark truth. Eddie wonders into an exhibit showcasing masks, with a recorded voice talking about the purpose of metaphorical and literal masks. We get glimpses of Eddie’s past, but never fully revealing themselves to us as we jump around the film’s complex non-linear structure. She has something to hide, it’s not her sexuality or gender (which she never hides), it’s something else far more sinister as she puts on mask after metaphorical mask, hiding the deep dark secrets she chooses to forget as well as remaining oblivious to other secrets yet to rear their ugly heads. This goes for pretty much every character found within Funeral Parade of Roses as everyone has something to hide. We often see these masks peeling away from each character through nightmarish montages scattered about, showing the beauty as well as the horrors that lay underneath. Masks also apply to the chameleon-like nature of the film’s shifting narrative structure. We jump around various styles in its jumbled non-linear approach that never lets us make sense of the timeline until we come back for multiple viewings, giving us chances to lift, pull and peel layers of the mask away.

After the film’s opening sex scene, Gondo asks Eddie what she thinks of his muscles and how they look as he flexes for her. She responds by asking him how she looks as she applies her makeup in the mirror, creating a Kaleidoscope-like effect as if she is confronting and asking herself and no one else. This scene is very telling of these specific themes of identity, inward reflection and the masks we choose to cover ourselves with to the world. As the story progresses, we often see Eddie applying makeup as she seemingly confronts and fools herself in the mirror, adding yet another mask that obscures a truth we have yet to uncover and one that Eddie is soon forgetting. The movie-within-a-movie shtick that occasionally rears its head is another fascinating, insightful choice from Matsumoto as he continues to add another complex mask over the characters’ and film’s existing ones, further questioning the mysteries that lie within the interweaving plot.

Matsumoto also opts for a non-linear approach as the straight line of the story is cut and shuffled around, creating a sense of uncertainty and confusion within the audience as they try to piece together the real Eddie. Flashes of violent, surreal imagery splashes across the frame from time to time, further fragmenting the film into a surrealist nightmare that blends the works and themes of great Greek playwrights with Matsumoto’s own ideas and questions regarding the constant evolution of identity.

Gay and trans characters were often portrayed (and still are) as depraved sex-fiends. Matsumoto will often draw attention away from the plot and place us in a documentary as he asks subjects about their sexual orientations and how they came about accepting it:

“Do you like being gay?”

“When did you know you were gay?”

“Could you ever go back to being a man?”

“Do you ever feel guilty having sex with another man?”

Some of these questions are ridiculous and insensitive in today’s landscape (even then, really), but it’s important to understand that LGBTQ+ topics and ideas were largely a taboo subject, especially within a country (and world) heavyset in strict heteronormative traditions and expectations. The film even makes note of the ever-fluid growth of the LGBTQ+ community’s understanding of itself when an individual at Gondo’s club mentions how "gay bars have changed" after witnessing more trans individuals frequenting the bar. The answers to the director’s questions are often met with a shy reservation, but are stern in their eventual response:

“I don’t know why I like it, I was born that way.”

It’s a startling reminder that some answers have always been the same and will continue to be so. It's not up to us to try understand why someone has a specific sexual preference or why they identify as a different gender. It's who they are and who they always will be. These moments are key in how the film chose to smash ignorant assumptions in regards to the attitudes felt towards LGBTQ+ individuals and the communities they belong to. Although some of the ideas and assumptions found within the film definitely have aged and continue to be addressed for the better, it’s still an important piece of history that works as a snapshot of the world’s view on the gay and trans experience in the past, present and eventual future.

As mentioned before, Funeral Parade owes a hell of a lot to the “fuck you” mentality the French New Wave gave to the traditionally deadest linear approach that a majority of movies stuck to. They also experimented heavily with often frowned-upon shooting, editing and sound techniques that would further amplify a film’s themes and ideas within the narrative. Matsumoto takes some groundbreaking trademarks most often used by Jean-Luc Godard and utilizes them in new ways that differentiate Funeral Parade of Roses from typical Godard and French New Wave works, further elevating the film’s CV as a unique one-of-a-kind experience that would go on to influence notable scenes and works from filmmaking giants like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Sped-up vignettes and how Matsumoto framed and moved his camera are just a few examples of the film's influence towards Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. David Lynch would go on to use strobe light freak-outs to nightmarish effect the same way Matsumoto used them. Even Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue owes a lot to Funeral Parade of Roses’ sense of storytelling prowess with its similar themes and a non-linear structure that forces us to question what is real and what is not. And as mentioned before, Matsumoto really does flip the middle finger at the expectations made towards Japanese cinema the same way the French did towards the expected conventions of filmmaking. And to this day, Funeral Parade of Roses still holds the middle finger up at the traditional storytelling techniques we are expected to stick to.

As ground-breaking as Funeral Parade of Roses is in its rallying war cry of identity and sexuality, it’s Peter’s portrayal as Eddie that brings each one of the film’s complex moving parts together, allowing her to ground some of the film’s scatterbrain thoughts into a performance that is highly attuned with herself as not only Eddie, but Peter as well. Peter also brings a level of authenticity to the film’s conversation regarding sexual and gender fluidity that can only be achieved with her instinct as a performer and as an individual with her own personal experiences. She weaves and adapts with the film’s constant shape shifting aesthetic and narrative style, delivering moments of appropriate sensitivity, strength and even the overly dramatic when the film's Greek tragedy leanings calls for her to do so. We had never seen a role, star or performance like this at the time, and to be honest, we still haven’t since. It’s that bold and that exciting as Peter shows us her true star power.

Funeral Parade of Roses is a high point for the Japanese New Wave that pushed boundaries both home and abroad during the height of creative expression that continues to confound in its deliriously unpredictable nature. A lot can still be learned from Matsumoto’s work, especially in regards to Funeral Parade of Roses, which is as vital, angry, and revolutionary as ever in a medium constantly evolving and shedding its skin.

Where you can watch it: Mubi (SA, USA, Australia), The Criterion Channel (USA), Kanopy (USA), Apple TV (UK)

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