Queer Cinema Japan is a Continuing Series on Cinema Homosexualis.
Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Bara no Sōretsu) was the first approved Japanese film to portray homosexuality. Released in 1969 and apparently expected to be a commercial release, this was Experimental film-maker Shuji Matsumoto’s first full length feature, and as far from the commercial drudgery released by the Japanese film industry in the late 60’s and 70’s as one could imagine. Funeral Parade of Roses is certainly one of the brightest examples of the Japanese New Wave that would prove a water shed of the late sixties, throwing new talent such as Oshima, Terayama and Suzuki into the public eye. Throughout the film, scenes scramble into a shattered mosaic, narrative stops altogether while editors unfurl reels and the cast and crew take breaks to dance and smoke pot. Characters are interviewed and interrogated between scenes, wild and sporadic images, text and titles unfurl at any given time. This film in particular, is the maddening, youthful promises of the late sixties so completely and utterly obliterated by the 1970’s.
The film is a revisionist version of Sophocles Oedipus Rex, set now in 1969 Tokyo in the Shinjuku district, in a gay bar called the Genet. The plot loosely centers around two rival drag queens, an older matron of the bar known as Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), and a younger employee known as Eddie (Peter in her breakthrough role that would lead to a rich and vigorous career.) The two become immersed in a love triangle between bar owner and drug dealer Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya). Eddie and Leda become bitter rivals by way of Fairy Tale images of The Wicked Queen and Snow White, both peering in an ornate mirror throughout the film while the inter title and characters occasionally ask, ‘Mirror, Mirror on the wall, whose the fairest of them all?’ Eventually, Eddie becomes the fairest, and new matron of the Genet Bar once Leda commits suicide in an ornate wedding dress, yet not to a happily ever after, but instead, a bitter secret that mirrors the famous Greek Tragedy.
The film, not surprisingly, is another gay tragedy in a long line of gay tragedies that 60’s American and British film had consistently exploited through the years in such films as Suddenly Last Summer, Victim and The Children’s Hour. Through over 100 years of film and theater, gayness is associated with elements of tragedy, perhaps because the heart of so much tragedy comes from the anxieties of human sexuality. The only problem is that Gay Tragedy continues to be dusted off, its corpse like pallor presented as new and refreshing with each passing year, contributing nothing new or unique to the very idea. While Matsumoto is noted for his unconventional take on narrative structure, he goes unnoticed for the conventions of Gay Tragedy he so artfully puts on its head, and makes so utterly refreshing. He manages to do this, because he understands homosexuality as tragedy in a classical sense, transferring a gay narrative to the conventions of a Greek Tragedy. Japanese Cinema is not accustomed or ingrained with the Narrative of Gay Tragedy as the United States and England were and continue to be. Another story where another fag dies because he’s sick and wrong, true, but Matsumoto gives us more than one side to the story, and offers us not a prejudiced or bigoted view of homosexuality, but provides us with the endless possibilities gay subject matter can provide in Cinema.
Matsumoto provides a unique take on Homosexuality in its very environment. Stephen Barber in his book Projected Cities: Cinema and Urban Space calls attention to this detail reminding us of the year and political climate of Japan when the film was made was a time where ‘the determined belief in revolution which had sustained the riotous inhabitants of Shinjuku was rapidly disintegrating’ further adding the characters have ‘lost all tangible connection with their city. The Tokyo and Shinjuku district of Funeral Parade is dark, almost apocalyptic and forbearing, and a definitive influence on the Futuristic Cities depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Here is our first clue that the sexuality of Funeral Parade of Roses is by all means, political, establishing the world of homosexuality in Japan as ‘Ghetto-ized’ and forced underground. Unlike films such as Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent, the gay bar is not a sick place festering in rat-like darkness. The Bar Genet is a place dripping with an exotic fervor, an inherent wildness that reminds one of Auntie Mame when she says ‘life’s a banquet and the whole world is starving.’ It is obvious the Bar Genet is the only force to truly fight the oppressive, apocalyptic world the characters face, the contrast of the films narrative immediately changes once any of the characters break into the outside world. All characters are aware of their invisible imprisonment. During Leda’s funeral, the company realize the local cemetery is submerged under water, one character revealing they wish ‘the entire city would be submerged underwater’ as blissful buddhas and moss covered epitaphs submerge in slimy, black liquid.
People who reside outside the world of the Genet Bar and the homes and hang out spots of the characters are callous, cold and often unwilling, uncaring onlookers of the busy, ever moving masses of Tokyo residents. The people who encompass the outside world of this Counter Cultural universe are made all the more powerful because they are real people in real time, presented as documentary footage, reminding one of the neo-realism of Rosselini in Rome: Open City. But the danger of being swallowed by the encompassing, mindless crowds is an ever present danger throughout the film, eventually proclaiming that the only way to face the crowd is through death, as we are shown in the final climax or the ghoulish protestors dressed in black, wearing mouth masks, carrying what seem to funerary objects through the streets. People look coldly or altogether ignore the protestors who are shown throughout the movie, which is in fact, documentary footage of a real protest started by the Zero Jingen Group in a protest on March the 24th 1969, drawing ‘from their previous performance Vietnam hansen Koshin (March Against the Vietnam War)’ (Ross; 1). When Eddie puts her eyes out like her Ancient prodessecor, Oedipus Rex, the gaping crowd looks on unaffected, clueless and coldly. They treat the very act of a human being with gouged eyeballs on the cusp of death, as just another work of curious performance art playing in the real time of their mundane, every day lives. Mashimoto proves to us, where the real tragedy lies. Funeral Parade of Roses is not the story of a person tragically cursed with the disease of homosexuality. It is the story of homosexuals cursed with a society that despises them and are devoured by indifference.
Essentially what makes Funeral Parade of Roses so refreshing and foreign to a Western viewer is the synonymous relationship of politics and sexuality, two ideals and assets essential to the Japanese Counter Cultural Movement. David Groomsman points out that the film among others, ‘were not homosexual per say, but were intended to symbolize positions of radical leftism’ that were ‘anti-feudal’ or ‘anti-bourgeois’. But perhaps Groomsman trivializes the power and context of Funeral Parade of Roses, and how utterly refreshing the film feels as a work of art addressing gay subject matter, even if it is a film that one reviewer has called, ‘a view from the outside, not the inside of gay and countercultural life.’ While homosexuality is either perverse, or wilting comedic femininity, homosexuality is synonymous with an exotic, dangerous and exciting world, one unseen in any film from the West. This is mostly because the world of the film is largely influenced by the works of Jean Genet, whose worlds of homosexuality, crime and passion became ‘a preoccupation among Tokyo’s visual artists’ as Berber makes clear. Coincidentally, Jean Genet was staying in Japan the time Funeral Parade of Roses was being filmed, visiting a lover, and expressed no interested in meeting any of the artists and writers who tried to contact him (Barber; 119).
The alliance of politics and sexuality throughout Funeral Parade of Roses provide the characters a freedom unseen in Queer Cinema up to that time, and still continues to be refreshing. The Drag Queens of the film are not creatures festering with tumorous secrets or cruddy punchlines like so many gay characters in 1960’s Western Cinema, but are proud and undeterred as they gather stares walking proudly in their wild apparel through Tokyo streets, using mens urinals as others look on confused. the amount of pride as portrayed by Peter and his gang of girls is a pride unseen throughout gay culture in the west, depicting the onslaught of Gay Awareness after the Stonewall Riots of the same year that would change Gay life forever.
Drag Queens of the film are interviewed between scenes, asked condescending questions. But what comes off by the way the interviews are filmed and how each character reacts to the said questions is what makes Funeral Parade of Roses such a refreshing film to this day. One cannot help but be reminded of stock footage so frequently used in such films as the documentary Before Stonewall or Gus Van Sant’s Milk of Gay Bar Police Raids in the NYC of 1950’s and 60’s, where men and women cower, covering their faces with hands and newspapers as they huddle into police vans. Here, though we are peering through an underground gay world as a voyeuristic audience, the Drag Queens of Funeral Parade of Roses do not hide or flinch when interrogated and captured in the cameras eye. They are exposed in bright light, standing or sitting proudly, answering each question with the stoic conviction of someone who understands something about themselves. One Queen in particular after having asked if she has any dreams replies ‘I am what I am’, and asked if he is happy being a queen, she answers ‘I’m content.’