by Steven Boone
There is a scene late in the film FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969) that might be the perfect HENTAI LAB specimen. Leaving her apartment, breathtakingly beautiful crossdresser Eddie (drag performer Peter) stumbles across a student protestor lying wounded in a stairwell. She takes him into her apartment and dresses his wounds. He tells her about the police brutality he suffered, and why he puts himself at such risk for the cause of liberation. This brief, almost throwaway scene expresses the unlikely bond between these two strangers.
In writer-director Toshio Matsumoto’s translated DVD commentary, he explains:
“On the one hand, we have a young guy who’s involved in the current student activist movement and on the other, we also have a gay youth who wants the right to live as a gay man and transform himself. They are poles apart, yet linked conversely by their similarity. This chance meeting between these two characters, both social outcasts, gave me the opportunity to introduce some supporting roles in the plot to symbolize this generation who didn’t fit into society and who opposed the inflexible cultural system of the times.”
At first, I had trouble with Matsumoto‘s terminology. He constantly refers to Peter and the character Eddie, as “he.” My problem with that was, well, just look at “him”:
My eyes had trouble agreeing with Matsumoto‘s assertion that his own film is about a “gay youth” when Eddie and “his” friends are clearly determined to live as women full-time.
FUNERAL PARADE, which borrows from Oedipus Rex to explain Eddie’s ultimately tragic circumstances, at first seems to offer more pity and sensationalism than true empathy. It has moments of slapstick ultraviolence that reportedly inspired Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE adaptation.
So why does this film leave me so haunted and impressed? (It is currently threatening to go on my top 20 of all time.) Maybe because Matsumoto includes so much of the “real world” in his creation that it bursts free of his elaborate but stifling conceptual framework. Into a “shattered glass” non-linear structure he describes as Cubist, Matsumoto inserts interviews with the film’s actors and real-life social outcasts, including the “gay men” this film labors to cloak in humiliation and tragedy. A blunt, antagonistic off-camera interviewer seems on the hunt for pitiable answers…
…but what stuck with me was how brave and determined these people were to be themselves in the face of social scorn.
even the ones who seemed a bit lost.
Likewise, in contrast to Eddie and her romantic rival, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara) both of whom grew up in the shadow of abuse and neglect…
…the actors who portray them seem to be happy, well-adjusted folks.
Yet, Peter’s onscreen testimony exposes prejudices and hangups in my interpretation.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think about the hero?
PETER: He and I have something in common. His father leaves him as a child. His way of living resembles mine. His character, too.
INTERVIEWER: His character? Do you sympathise with him?
PETER: Yes. But not in terms of incest, or things like that. But I do understand him.
So, Peter uses “he” as well. Was my sexual preference presenting a barrier to (or a condition for) empathy? What if the actor playing Eddie wasn’t so beautiful and feminine?
While the actors seem a lot more comfortable with the male pronoun than I assumed, FUNERAL PARADE’s avoidance of the term transgender (though “transsexual” comes up in one interview) and uniform reference to these people as “gay men” seems just as limiting as insisting upon “she.”
Oblige Matsumoto a bit of freak show condescension in his approach, because his ambition is quite vast. The film passes through various corners of the counterculture with a touch of satire.
The drug scene.
Anarchists and student demonstrators.
The art world.
There’s even a heavy-handed (but no doubt provocative, for 1969 Japan) erotic episode that connects Eddie’s trauma with that of a black G.I. fresh from Vietnam.
“The boundaries between male and female are blurred. This is just one symbolic glimpse into this world, but so many boundaries
are broken in this world where boundaries are not delineated at all. To a certain extent we are shown how everything is jumbled or mixed together. Thus, one sees the problems that this can create.” —Toshio Matsumoto
Matsumoto‘s wide net brings up so many riches of observation and beauty that I trust the vibrant storytelling before the somewhat cynical storyteller. More than the hippie panorama, it’s the found poetry and intimate details that make this film worth cherishing as something greater than a cultural relic.
The main storyline that Matsumoto cuts up and scatters about concerns the love triangle between club owner Leda and Eddie, her much younger, highly popular hostess. They are both in love with, or at least desperately attached to, a no-good smuggler named Gonda (Yoshi Tsuchiya). He tells each lover what she wants to hear.
The rivalry between Eddie and Leda, which recalls another mythic touchstone, Snow White…
…comes to boil as Leda starts to lose her ground with Gonda, who gaslights her into a frenzy.
The girls have a catfight in Manga-style comic panels and CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style time lapse.
The tone shifts constantly in this film. Scenes where Gonda and his lovers attempt to communicate with each other through means other than sex are as grave as a funeral:
In one closeup that stops the world, Matsumoto records the slow and spectacular breaking of Leda‘s heart after Gonda has told her she’s over the hill, too much trouble, and of no further use to him.
What makes this moment hard to shake, besides Ogasawara’s performance for the ages, are memories of the tenderness Gonda lavished on Leda in earlier scenes.
A gentle kiss on the forehead can be more emotionally binding, more potentially devastating than a full-on lip-lock. Matsumoto, for all his air-tight conceptual spiel and lack of sentimentality, evokes this basic understanding in various sublime images of lovemaking. This is the spiritual side of “erotic.”
The action is often so abstract that such notions as gender and sexuality evaporate in the intoxicating moment.
What matters is that two human beings offer each other comfort in some stolen corner of a chaotic and treacherous world. What seems so ephemeral may actually stand (in our collective memory) long after politics and wars and the lofty concerns of high art.
Let’s come down to earth for a moment, and return to that catfight. There is something sad about this petty burst of violence, but when you slow it down, you find Peter and Osamu laughing their asses off in every frame.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see a documentary on these two crazy actors? What ever happened to Osamu Ogasawara? Did he live much longer than his tragic character? IMDb lists only FUNERAL PROCESSION under his name. We know that Peter is still alive today, with numerous film and TV credits, including Akira Kurosawa’s RAN (1985).
Maybe one of the last barriers to true empathy is our capacity to imagine, and fervently hope for, a person’s freedom and happiness, no matter how alien they appear from our perspective or how great the odds piled against them. There’s a lot of bleak foreboding and tragedy in FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES, but what makes it so valuable to me are the moments it shakes loose from all that shit, convulsing in fits of joy and light.
(Psst… check it out. )