"Funeral Parade of Roses" is one of the more haunting films I watched in 2010, and I'm still thinking about it months after my first viewing. Beautiful, poignant, perverse, and stylish, this exploration of gay culture and identity in late-1960s Japan has a shocking intensity that has lost none of its impact in the forty-plus years since its release. There's a richness of symbolism, a complex artistic intent, and a disorienting structure here that makes the task of discussing the film a daunting one indeed.
The first feature film by director Toshio Matsumoto, "Funeral Parade of Roses" tells the story of Eddie, a startlingly beautiful drag queen who works as a hostess in a Tokyo bar. Eddie and his rival Leda vie for the affections of Gonda, a shady underworld figure who deals drugs and manages the bar where they both work. It's clear that Eddie is struggling with a dark secret that's alluded to in flashbacks throughout the film, and this secret eventually overwhelms him in the crushing final scenes of the film.
This quick plot summary does no justice to the movie, including as it does rollercoaster tonal shifts, Brechtian fourth-wall busting, moments of cheeky humor and digressions into full-on psychedelia. Now might be the right moment to mention that Stanley Kubrick cited "Funeral Parade of Roses" as an influence on his adaptation of "A Clockwork Orange," and while the latter film concentrates much more on satire, the stylistic similarities are undeniable. Matsumoto's film contains several juxtapositions of quirky music and sped-up film and has an overall Pop Art sensibility that encompasses the street fashions sported by the characters, the frequent appearance of poster art in the backgrounds of scenes, and even cartoon word balloons that emerge from the mouths of Eddie and Leda during a particularly nasty spat.
While the film focuses on the gay counterculture in Tokyo, there is a depiction of the city's youth scene that touches on anti-war protests, hippie drug culture, juvenile delinquency, and racial tension. Surgical-masked protesters hold a mock funeral, stalling traffic on the street. One of Eddie's suitors is an African-American soldier stationed in Japan. Eddie and his cross-dressing friends get into a brawl with a tattooed girl gang.
The movie consists of layers upon layers of context that war for the viewer's attention. The aggressively modern production design complements the experimental structure, which includes films-within-the-film. Characters are interviewed about their lifestyles and there are erotic encounters that turn out to be nothing more than performances for a camera crew which is revealed mid-action. This cutting-edge modernity is in contrast with other themes in the movie that are drawn from Greek mythology. Leda is a familiar name to Classicists for her unnatural dalliances with Zeus in swan-form, and the name Eddie is derived from that of the tragic king Oedipus. This tension between modern and classical, East and West, underground and mainstream culture informs every frame of "Funeral Parade of Roses."
The depiction of gay culture is remarkably nuanced and sensitive--characters are shown who exist along the continuum of gender and sexual identity. While the central characters dress and behave like women, they identify as gay men and specifically express the fact that they are not transsexuals. Several of the gay men in the film are what might be called "straight-acting," with the behavior and attire traditionally reserved for "macho," heterosexual men.
In the role of Eddie, actor Peter conveys a sensuality and beauty that are hypnotically androgynous. His elegant physicality and nuanced facial expressions infuse the film with a humanity that might be lost among all the flashy artistry. The inevitability of his fate is made all the more tragic because he is a fully-formed person feeling very real pain beneath all the makeup and artifice.
It's difficult to distill a movie like "Funeral Parade of Roses" because it so perfectly utilizes the cinematic medium. There's something really energizing about seeing a movie that embraces the potential of film. Sound, time, and visuals combine to create an artifact that should be watched and appreciated for its extreme film-ness. Like the best pieces of art, "Funeral Parade of Roses" will leave you thinking long after you've finished watching.