薔薇の葬列 (Bara no Sōretsu)
Running time: 105 min.
Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
More than once during Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 film “Funeral Parade Of Roses”, I wondered to myself if perhaps a good story had been ruined all in the name of “experimentation”. The random images, purposely vague actions, non-sequitors and repeated scenes all seemed to derail my investment in what I thought was the story. I never wondered for long though – even if what I just saw didn’t make perfect sense, within 5 minutes I always had a greater context that allowed me to not only dive back into the story, but to dive down a bit deeper. It’s a remarkable trick that Matsumoto pulls off – a fractured, non-linear set of events manages to create a complete picture of not only the central character, but also a community of people, a lifestyle and even an entire artistic movement.
The Shinjuku district of Tokyo was a thriving and culture rich environment in the late 60s and Matsumoto was right in the centre of it. He appears to have soaked up a great deal of what was going on through his early experimental short films because he wrings it all out in this feature debut. While revolving his story around young drag queen Eddie (played by 17 year old Peter – the jester Kyoami from Kurosawa’s “Ran”), Matsumoto also manages to ponder the nature of filmmaking itself by punctuating the proceedings with actual interviews with gay men (most of them “queens”) and providing several meta-moments that throw everything into question. Matsumoto himself appears in the film as a director of a love scene starring Eddie. When the camera cuts from the softly lit throes of ecstasy to the entire camera crew, Eddie asks into the lens if he is doing a good job in his first film (indeed, it was Peter’s first film as well). So was it actually cut footage from a similar love scene that opened the film or a fictional porn movie that the character Eddie was appearing in? Whatever the case, it adds yet one more layer to the confusion of the times for these young gay men – growing up in a very patriarchal society, but suddenly finding themselves with much more freedom to experiment with their own identity.
Identity and how we mask it is really the main theme of the film. This comes through in the very natural and honest answers of the men in the documentary-style interviews. The various types of responses help to give a better framework for Eddie and his friends as they flaunt being queens while they walk downtown, browse through shops and unapologetically march into men’s bathrooms. They aren’t much different than many of their friends who have their own masks and talk of political ideals while getting stoned and having orgies. One example is Guevera – an artist, filmmaker and self-proclaimed revolutionary, who can’t even keep on his own fake beard (that mimicks a much more famous revolutionary). There’s also Gonda, owner of the gay club called Genet (after author Jean Genet who wrote a great deal about the nature of homosexuality) and Eddie’s much older boyfriend, who has a skeleton or two in his closet.
The gist of the plot is that Gonda (played by Yoshio Tsuchiya who had his own Kurosawa connection in his very first film: “Seven Samurai”) is attempting to get his other boyfriend Leda to quit as the madam of his club to make way for Eddie. Meanwhile we see snippets of events that foreshadow tragedy on its way. Matsumoto further plays with our expectations, though, since some of these events have already occurred. Combined with the mosaic of almost subliminal images scattered through the film, you can never quite be sure where you are in the story. The many mirrors in the film reflect the many dual identities and help to always question what you might be seeing – is that the real person or yet another mask? As one of the characters says at one point, “Behind the masks, people suffer loneliness”. How ironic that one of the repeated musical cues in the film is the old child’s song with the refrain “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be!” It’s worth searching out this unheralded classic for the gorgeous and creative black and white photography alone, but there are so many additional interesting layers to peel away too.
Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.