Funeral Parade of Roses was the seventh film to be produced – rather than just distributed – by the Art Theatre Guild of Japan and was the first feature to be directed by Toshio Matsumoto, who had been making shorts since 1955. Perhaps because Funeral Parade of Roses is frequently identified as an Art Theatre Guild production, and discussed in the context of the company’s development, it is less often discussed in the context of Matsumoto’s output, although the director was admittedly not prolific in terms of features. He would make just one further film for the Art Theatre Guild, the pessimistic jidaigeki Pandemonium (1971), and two subsequent films for other independent financiers. However, a background in experimental shorts made Matsumoto highly suited to working under the Art Theatre Guild banner, following in the footsteps of the multi-disciplinary artist Hiroshi Teshigahara by navigating from the avant-garde to the emerging independent sector. Funeral Parade of Roses is very much an exercise in deconstruction, a film that makes relatively few concessions to commercial narrative form, frequently calling attention to the artifice of cinema itself; Matsumoto utilises a range of cinéma vérité techniques, even breaking the fourth wall on occasion to comment on the manipulative nature of the medium. Still, these experimental urges do not detract from the fact that Funeral Parade of Roses is also a social record, a fascinating documentation of the Tokyo underground scene of the late 1960s that inspired much artistic activity but also attracted negative attention from the cultural mainstream.
Everyone in Funeral Parade of Roses is playing multiple roles and Matsumoto makes it clear that the film takes place in a world where people lose themselves within a sexually decedent sub-culture. The basis of the story is the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus Rex, although plot is here largely secondary to Matsumoto’s stylised social observation. Leda (Osamu Ogasawara) and Eddie (Pîtâ) are transvestites working at Bar Genet, a gay establishment in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. The bar is frequented by artists such as Guevara, who self-consciously adopts not only the name of a legendary revolutionary, but also his image, while salary-men arrive in business suits, but do not discuss office work as they seek to keep their after-hours identities separate from daily routine. Although both Leda and Eddie are navigating the nether-regions of Tokyo, they are very much opposites: Leda dress in a kimono and behaves in a traditional manner, while Eddie wears short skirts, is often rude to customers and plunges headfirst into a hedonistic lifestyle. Yet both are embroiled in potentially destructive affairs with Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who owns the bar and supplements his income by dealing drugs. After spotting Eddie with Gonda, Leda realises that her co-worker poses a threat to her relationship with the boss, and plots to have Eddie disfigured, while threatening to report Gonda’s drug dealing if he breaks-up with her. This attempt at maintaining control is crucially misjudged, as Gonda prefers spending time with Eddie, and their love triangle reaches a tragic climax.
The performers in Funeral Parade of Roses are unknowns, a characteristic of the Art Theatre Guild, which would often cast new faces in its stories of a Japan gone wild, but Matsumoto’s approach to directing these performers goes one step further. His actors actually give interviews about their characters or roles, with these sections being interspersed with interviews conducted with transvestites and gay men on the streets of Tokyo. There is a sex scene between Eddie and an American soldier, initially shot in hand-held close-up, then revealed to be a ‘scene’ when production equipment is shown around bed, with Leda subsequently addressing the camera to say how much she enjoyed watching that scene being shot. How much of this is prompted, real or scripted is open to debate; Bar Genet is patronized by actors, fashion photographers, and even Masahiro Shinoda, the director of Pale Flower (1964) and Double Suicide (1969), the latter of which was also distributed by the Art Theatre Guild. While the fact that Funeral Parade of Roses is a ‘film’ is acknowledged throughout, its qualities as a film are even critiqued towards the end when the film reviewer Choji Yodogawa evaluates the scene that has preceded his appearance. Flashes of clapperboards between scenes and the use of inter-titles further add to this effect, interrupting narrative continuity in favour of self-aware collage, while Matsumoto makes the audience aware of his experimental roots by screening a lengthy segment of his short Extasis (1969) during one of the cine-club scenes.
Matsumoto has not directed a feature since Dogura Magura (1988), and his last short film, Disguise, and video installation project, Trap of Narratology, were both completed in 1992. He is now established in the world academia, holding the post of Professor and Dean of Arts at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. As his sparse feature film credits suggest, Matsumoto only dabbled in the world of narrative cinema; Funeral Parade of Roses has emerged as a genuine cult classic, with David Desser and Donald Richie offering detailed readings of its sexual politics, but his other works are sadly only available as bootlegs or downloads. The incessant manner in which Funeral Parade of Roses deconstructs the boundaries of narrative cinema suggests that Matsumoto was not particularly enthusiastic about the form, and believed that its restrictions outweighed its potential. Even a company such as the Art Theatre Guild, which offered artistic freedom within the conditions of low-budgets and tight shooting schedules, with exhibition arranged through its own theatre chains, may have seemed too commercial for him: an overly ‘organised’ way of making art that was placed in a theatrical venue which was essentially commercial due to its ties to the national box office system, no matter how ‘alternative’ it may have seemed to its target student demographic. Regardless of any reservations that Matsumoto may have had about feature production, Funeral Parade of Roses remains both a remarkable record of late-1960s Japanese sub-culture and a bold illustration of its director’s subversive intent.
(Editor’s note: For more information about the indie producer/distributor The Art Theatre Guild of Japan, check out episode 34 of our podcast)