Oedipus Rex in Drag

Next to William Shakespeare, Sophocles is probably the most enduring and internationally renowned dramatist in terms of his work still being adapted for the stage, television and cinema and I doubt you will find a more bizarre or outre version of his Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex than Funeral Parade of Roses. Directed by Japanese avant-garde filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto, this revelatory 1969 movie – it was his first feature film after several experimental shorts – is just as fresh and startling today as it was when it first appeared over fifty years ago.   

A scene from Japanese director Toshio Matsumoto’s experimental feature Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

A very loose adaptation of Sophocles’ play circa 429 BC, Funeral Parade of Roses appropriates the essential storyline ingredients into an insider portrait of the gay underworld in Tokyo in 1969 while riffing on such Hollywood genres as film noir and grand diva melodrama. It also replaces the original plot twist shocker of a son killing his father and marrying his mother with an equally surprising and taboo scenario. This should hardly be a spoiler for anyone coming fresh to this movie though because the real surprise is the audacious and unexpected way Matsumoto chooses to tell his story. Here the Greek tragedy becomes a lurid pop culture mash-up that mirrors the chaotic, erupting counterculture of the late sixties and all of the baggage that comes with it (sexual permissiveness, drug use, rock ‘n roll, rebels and revolutionaries). Adding depth and complexity to the visual pyrotechnics of Tatsuo Suzuki’s cinematography and Toshie Iwasa’s kinetic editing is an abundance of film references and homages that includes the early New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the work of such experimental filmmakers as Andy Warhol and Michael Snow. Funeral Parade of Roses is a movie that is vibrantly alive to the possibilities of cinema and not merely a showstopping carnival of dazzling imagery without meaning or just style for the sake of style.

Underground culture thrives at the Genet Bar in Toshio Matsumoto’s radical 1969 film, Funeral Parade of Roses.

While any attempt to offer a brief synopsis of the plot is probably completely superfluous to the film’s unorthodox exploration of identity and gender, here is a bare bones framework which Matsumoto adorns with Freudian psychology, social criticism and black humor. The main character, Eddie (played by cross-dressing actor Pita) is a transvestite who entertains customers at the Genet Bar and cabaret. Eddie is involved in a relationship with an experimental filmmaker and appears as an actress in his recent opus but is obsessed with Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the handsome club owner of the Genet. There’s one major obstacle though and that’s Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the bar hostess and Gonda’s current and very jealous mistress. In some ways, Matsumoto’s interpretation could be seen as a contemporary homage to those days during Shakespeare’s time in which male actors played all the parts. The transvestite and cross-dressing actors in the cast are also seen occasionally in their dressing rooms in their male identities as they transform into fantasy versions of themselves, a process that has a Kabuki theatre quality about it.

A scene from Toshio Matsumoto’s visually inventive and thematically radical film, Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

Matsumoto is not a director most Western audiences are familiar with for the simple fact that very few of his films have been seen here outside of isolated museum and film society screenings. In addition, the majority of his filmography consists of experimental shorts and only a handful of features. Funeral Parade of Roses is his most famous film outside of Japan and a notorious cause celebre in its own country. Demons aka Shura aka Pandemonium (1971), a dark, violent samurai revenge film, is probably his other best known work and, on the basis of those two, I suspect his other feature films such as The War of the 16 Year Olds (1973) and Dogra Magra (1988), are probably just as mind-blowing and radical. But until someone makes them available in this country it is hard to assess his importance in relation to such better known peers as Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses) and Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes). Unfortunately, Matsumoto died at age 85 in April 2017.

Osamu Ogasawara plays Leda, a hostess at the Genet Bar, in this typically bizarre image from Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

In an interview with Aaron Gerow, Matsumoto discussed the germination of Funeral Parade of Roses and that period of his life: “I never wanted to become a professional studio director. However, the sense in my case was that, because I wanted to make a kind of experimental, dramatic film that had not existed before, I was provocatively raiding the fiction film world as a guerrilla. Thus in this project, my creative intent was to disturb the perceptual schema of a dualistic world dividing fact from fiction, men from women, objective from subjective, mental from physical, candidness from masquerade, and tragedy from comedy. Of course the subjects I took up were gay life and the student movement–since it was made around the same time as For My Crushed Right Eye, the material is probably similar. But in terms of form, I dismantled the sequential, chronological narrative structure and arranged past and present, reality and fantasy on temporal axes as in a cubist painting, adopting a fragmented, collage-like form that quoted from literature, theater, painting, and music old and new from both East and West. While I was not clearly conscious of it at the time, this effort connects with the concept of the postmodern that appeared later. In a sense, this kind of rejection of the ordered and arranged world of the dualistic law of perspective I am talking about is a way to start bringing modernity into question….More than criticizing the modern on the basis of the premodern, the concept in Funeral of Roses was to advance and rupture it by investigating it thoroughly. Those were the days of furious political struggles over the US-Japan Security Treaty renewal in 1970, so I was criticized considerably for making this kind of film. I was denounced, but in my mind, I did not want to aim for a message about the 1970 Security Treaty, but rather throw forth my premonitions about much larger movements in the earth’s crust, in the values and modes of perception of the world that would undermine modernity itself.”

Alienated lovers in Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) starring Yoshio Tsuchiya (left) and Pita.

We know we’re in for something different from the first frame of Funeral Parade of Roses as a quote sets the stage – “I’m a wound and a sword, a victim and an executioner” – followed by a sexual encounter rendered in stark white on white closeups that transform the two lovers into abstract body parts, all of this is accompanied by eerie organ music that would make a great science fiction score. Mixing almost subliminal shots into this sequence, which turn out to be clues to the main character’s past and future, the movie also introduces the opening credits at odd intervals that continue well into the first eighteen minutes! Often Matsumoto will play with the framing and visual compositions in such a way that a scene takes on a completely new meaning as more information is revealed. For example, one scene begins with news footage shot hand held-style by a TV cameraman that is suddenly distorted by wavy lines. We then realize we are watching a television screen but a further pullback reveals we are watching an experimental film being viewed by the filmmaker with his friends at home.

Various experimental techniques such as dialogue delivered as cartoon balloons is typical of Toshio Matsumoto’s avant-garde style in Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

Matsumoto continually adopts and discards cinema styles and effects to suit the mood and tone of each scene – freeze frames, rapid time lapse transitions, speeded up action for comic, cartoon-like punctuation, shock cuts and strobe-like editing, title cards and disorientating camera set-ups. A man’s face in a family photograph dissolves in black ash as a lit cigarette protrudes through the other side of the snapshot; Eddie and Leda stage a shootout in the bar with toy guns as Manga-style balloon captions display their taunts and insults; a gory double murder is teased in bits and pieces throughout the film until the killer is revealed in a sequence that might have inspired Dario Argento’s similar plot device in Deep Red.

Another subversive, gender bender scene from Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

Amos Vogel in his landmark book Film as a Subversive Art comments on a version of the above still from the film, noting “The ambiance is very contemporary, the positioning is startling…The three girls are transvestites and the shot assumes another meaning.”

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) by Japanese director Toshio Matsumoto is an experimental riff on Oedipus Rex set in Tokyo’s gay underworld.

One of the obvious Nouvelle Vague influences of Funeral Parade of Roses is the way Matsumoto weaves in on-the-street documentary footage and interviews with real members of Tokyo’s underground society, ranging from gay men to pot smokers to political activists. All of this only enhances the outsider status of the main characters while expressing some of the same inner turmoil, rage and confusion being experienced by them. Commenting on this mixture of documentary realism and avant-garde techniques, the director said in his interview with Gerow, “Both were extremely fascinating to me, but that’s where problems arose. Although I found the freedom of avant-garde’s uninhibited, imaginative world extremely attractive, it had the tendency to get stuck in a closed world. Documentaries, on the other hand, while intensely related to reality, would not really thoroughly address internal mental states and were so dependent upon their temporal contexts they would look old-fashioned if their temporal context changed. I wondered whether the point of collision between the limitations and strong points of the two forms could not pose a new set of topics for cinema.”

Transvestite actor Pita plays Eddie, the main character in the Japanese film Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

It is interesting to note that Pita, like fellow female impersonator Akihiro Miwa of Black Rose (1969) and Black Lizard (1969), went on to play a variety of women characters and eccentrics in such films as Queen Bee Strikes Again (1971), Fruits of Passion (1981), and Ran (1985), in which he plays the Fool in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear.  Funeral Parade of Roses marked Pita’s film debut but his co-star Toshio Tsuchiya was already well known to Japanese and international audiences for his memorable roles in several Kurosawa films beginning with The Seven Samurai (1954) as well as such famous Toho sci-fi films as The Mysterians (1957) and The H-Man (1958).

A burning cigarette destroys a family portrait in the Japanese avant-garde melodrama, Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

Funeral Parade of Roses fared poorly upon its release in Japan where it was attacked by many critics who blamed its radical, experimental nature as one more reason why cinema attendance was dropping. It is hard to imagine now that Matsumoto’s film would have ever received wide distribution as a commercial film in Japan or anywhere and just as hard to believe that the average moviegoer would have been drawn to it. At any rate, it didn’t make much of an impact in the U.S. either when it opened in October of 1970.  Vincent Canby of The New York Times, one of the few high profile critics at the time to review it, wrote, “Matsumoto uses speeded-up action, reverse-negative photography and “in” movie jokes that the subtitles invariably get wrong, as in a reference to “Jonas Mecas.” Time is splintered for no apparent purpose and individual sequences are introduced by title cards that say such things as “all doors are already open.” The film shows us an underworld of male prostitutes, pimps and drug pushers that looks comfortably middle-class, not much more desperate than Saturday at a country club. As literature, “Funeral Parade of Roses” is closer in spirit to something like “A Stolen Life,” in which Bette Davis played twins, than it is to the work of Genêt, whose name the film uses in vain.” If Canby was unimpressed, however, director Stanley Kubrick was reputed to be a big fan of Matsumoko’s film and acknowledged it as an influence on his 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.

A scene from the subversive Japanese film Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

For many years Funeral Parade of Roses has been missing in action, surfacing occasionally at museum screenings and film festivals. A screening at the Japan Society in NYC in February 2009 was immediately sold out, possibly due to the society’s offer, “Free admission if you come dressed in your fabulous retro kimono or vintage 60s style!”

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is a radical reworking of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, directed by Toshio Matsumoto

Other people with all-region DVD players have been able to see Matsumoko’s film via the Japanese import version that was distributed by CD Japan. An even better option for those with all-region players is the edition from Eureka Video in the Masters of Cinema series. Their transfer of Funeral Parade of Roses from the director’s own print includes an audio commentary by Matsumoto, a video interview with him, promotional material and a forty-page booklet with an essay by Jim O’Rourke. In November 2017 Cineliciouspics released the film on Blu-Ray in the U.S. and it offers another upgrade from a 4k restoration plus it comes with 8 of Matsumoto’s avant-garde shorts, an audio commentary by Chris D., and other extras. For the adventurous film buff looking for the next unsung cult film to champion, you can’t do much better than this.

The Blu-Ray cover for the Cineliciouspics release of Funeral Parade of Roses (1969).

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