Friday, June 1, 2018

Toshio Matsumoto | Bara no sôretsu (Funeral Parade of Roses)

parade of the blind
by Douglas Messerli

Toshio Matsumoto (writer and director) Bara no sôretsu (Funeral Parade of Roses) / 1969, USA 1970

I had heard of Japanese director Toshio Matsumoto’s outrageous melodrama of 1969 earlier, but had almost forgotten about it until my Facebook friend Joe Amato reported, coincidentally on my birthday, that he had just seen “Funeral Parade of Roses,” and asked several others as well had we ever seen it? I had not, but fortunately another friend, Aldon Nielsen soon after posted a link where we might watch it for free, which led me to seek it out as an odd birthday activity.
         Funeral Parade of Roses is surely the kind of film many might wish to avoid, let alone view it on a special holiday. With influences from Godard, Resnais, Jonas Mekas, and Jack Smith—and influence upon, so critics argue, Stanley Kubrick—Matsumoto’s film is not so much a “narrative” as it is a sort of slow-motioned testimony to Japanese outsiderness.
     Eddie (Pîtâ) a transsexual “gay” (today seeming contradictory terms, which are nonetheless appropriate to the time in which movie was made when those who engaged in homosexual behavior of any kind were described as “roses” in Japanese culture) is in bed with Jimi (Yoshiji Jo). The two, a bit as in Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour and Smith’s Flaming Creatures, are engaged in deep, lustful sex, their bodies becoming almost inseparable. If Eddie later seems a bit unsure of her/his sexuality, it is clear she loves Jimi, and is willing to do almost anything to keep him near.
     In fact, they spend much of the rest of the movie driving around while trying to avoid the inevitable encounter with Jimi’s other lover, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), a mean-spirited owner of the local bar and intensely jealous transsexual.
       The voyage of these two, Eddie and Jimi—accompanied by various pop songs, contemporary and classical—take us through Tokyo’s underground world, filled with other transsexuals and “roses”—as I’ve hinted, the sexual lines are not clearly drawn—as they talk about their sexuality without being able successfully to explain it even to themselves. And accordingly, we might describe these travels as a kind of “parade,” each of them desiring to be seen while also hiding within their own sexual confusions and, given the level of Japanese fascination with yet homophobia of the day, necessarily somewhat secretive.
     At the same time, we are also privy to momentary flashbacks to Eddie’s childhood, which seems to suggest that he was not only molested but perhaps witness to a murder, which calls up another brilliantly outré Japanese film, Susumu Hani’s Hatsukoi: Jigoku-hen (Nanami: The Inferno of First Love), a film which combines a first heterosexual love with child abuse and pedophilia.
     Yet Matsumoto’s film attempts to accomplish, despite its rather forbidden characters, a movie that is also about filmmaking. If this work’s various characters are all about identity (or lack of identity), so too are they attempting to discover (or rediscover themselves) through the outsized figures they are portraying on screen. One might easily argue that Matsumoto’s “roses” stand in for the strongly heterosexual figures of Godard’s Contempt and Pierrot le Fou, as the director here keeps calling “cut,” which forces us to see this parade of identities as an truly artificial thing such as the film shoots of Contempt—in fact, that first scene is, in some senses a reenactment of the first scene of Godard’s film—while at the same time presenting us a wide-range of cinematic genres as in Pierrot le Fou with its actors constantly looking in the rear-view mirror or turning to the backseat as if to seek our approval.
     From a love story, Matsumoto’s drifts into a road film, a documentary, a satire of self-satisfied artists and other filmmakers—as critic Simon Abrams notes, “Some of them, like pontificating stoner beardo Guevara (Toyosaburo Uchiyama), solemnly quote their favorite artists.”—a kind of existential drama of selfhood that cannot quite be properly linguistically expressed, a horror film of childhood memories, a kind of “rose bowl” parade, and, finally, a revenge tragedy that ends in a violent “Oedipus Rex”-like blinding. Far more ambitious than any Hollywood film, Matsumoto’s “funeral parade” may not be as gloriously slick as many a great movie, but its mind and heart is so deeply involved that, finally, this becomes a film we simply cannot ignore. We have to watch these “drag-queens,” transsexuals, “roses,” whatever you want to call them, play out their imagined lives and destinies. And to any open-minded individual they utterly enchant and amaze us along the way.

Los Angeles, June 1, 2018

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