The Year’s Best Film is a 1969 Cult Flick from Japan
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1972) is of course one of the masterworks of 20th century cinema – immeasurably influential, widely studied and written about. But the film that, by Kubrick’s own admission, inspired Clockwork is little known except outside the smallest circles of cineastes.
Writer-director Toshio Matsumoto released the black & white, in-all-ways-queer Funeral Parade of Roses in 1969. It’s amassed a small but devout cult following since then but is nowhere near as known or celebrated as it should be, even though Kubrick reportedly said it was a direct influence on his own film. It’s fitting that in this season of gay pride, film festivals and celebrations, as well as insipid summer blockbusters, Matsumoto’s work is being released in a jaw-droppingly gorgeous 4K restoration. (It opened last week in New York, and opens this weekend in Los Angeles at Cinefamily.) Funeral is a timely reminder of how thrilling formal daring and truly subversive queer content can be.
A loose, inspired reworking of Oedipus Rex, the film centers on Eddie (played by trans actor Peter, from Kurosawa’s Ran), a character conceived in part as a nod to Edie Sedgwick, as a beautiful young working girl in the brothel Genet. She’s surrounded by other fem gay boys (the film, working in the parlance of its time, folds all its fem male queer bodies under the category heading “gay,” though now many of them would likely identify or be identified as trans or non-binary). There’s a bit of All About Eve in play, as Eddie is sleeping with low-level crime lord Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya, from Seven Samurai and Yojimbo), who’s also the boyfriend of Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the brothel’s aging madam. This love triangle serves as the film’s center, though the story’s writhing tentacles include flashbacks to Eddie’s troubled childhood, detours into a radical political collective whose leader is named Guevara (whose right-arm comrade sports John Lennon glasses), and moments where Eddie bonds with the other working girls. There are also several scenes of mass outdoor protests against the government and for assorted progressive causes.
There’s booze and drugs, whoring and violence, and the brothel itself is modeled after a nightclub that might be found in swinging London of the late 1960s. Traditional Japanese attire (largely worn by Leda) jostles alongside the fashion of the day (gorgeously styled), and is the favored gear of Eddie and her friends. They are the vibrant present and unwritten future. Leda is the past. Close-ups on Eddie’s massive false eyelashes underscore their falseness, their utility as tools of artifice, illustrating the idea that identity is/can be a “construct,” like reality itself. But the film – without didacticism – also makes clear that while we might construct a reality (or identity) to our liking, one that makes navigating the world bearable, though not always easy, that doesn’t mean we always have control over it, or that we’re absolved from unforeseen consequences of our choices.
Matsumoto plays with the act of construction in the film itself, leapfrogging through genre and being irreverent (though always firmly in control) with form, creating a film that is often performance art. He has a giddy infidelity to expectation, and throws the most arresting curve balls. A cat-fight between Eddie and Leda comes to a sudden stop, only to resume and resolve through still photos that have speech balloons drawn on them (“fag,” “slut”). There are brief, fourth wall smashing documentary breakaways in which real life “gay boys” and men are questioned about their queerness (“Why did you become a gay boy? How long have you been a gay boy?”), and the answers range from a kind of nascent pride to answers and body language that, in effect, shrug and say, “Whatever…” to the queries.
Interspersed in the fiction narrative, both Peter and Ogasawara are asked about their offscreen lives, their real-life gender presentations, and how they feel about being in the film; the gaps between their non-fiction selves and the characters they’re playing drive home what powerful actors/actresses they are. (At one point we’re shown Matsumoto calling “cut,” and the cast and crew reverting to reality while the next shot is prepped. At another point, a “critic” breaks the fourth wall to give his assessment of the film-in-progress.) All of it is woven seamlessly together.
Humor threads the film as it works toward its shocking ending, while the work of DP Tatsuo Suzuki and art director Setsu Asakura make every frame a work of art. A recurring bit, in which a lit cigarette is filmed in close-up burning through the back of a photograph, turning a face into a crumbling heap of ash, is both disturbing and oddly mesmerizing. There are images (such as the one immediately below) that foreshadow the work of the late Chinese photographer Ren Hang, who wouldn’t even be born until almost two decades later. You won’t see a more visually beautiful film this year.
The most exciting thing about Funeral is its unapologetic queerness, the way it flies in the face of the assimilationist, neutered queer politic and aesthetic that reins not only in America and Europe, but throughout a lot of the world as Western notions of queer agency/viability so often take root and overrun more interesting, culturally complex notions of sex, sexuality and gender. That the film works as an extended act of local subversion while referencing white/Western icons of rebellion – Edie Sedgwick’s poor little rich white girl, sometimes posited as a class traitor (not even); John Lennon’s pop star as rebel and activist; the nod toward radical queer writer and activist Jean Genet, the brothel’s namesake – as well as iconic communist heroes (Che), and yet goes beyond mere fetish to capture and complicate a specific cultural/political moment in Japan, speaks to the gifts and smarts of Matsumoto. He inserts his film into the late ‘60s global conversation about revolutions and rebellions taking place both in society and within individuals, and it’s a bold, heady contribution. And while a superficial reading of the film might fold it into the long line of cinematic works about a tragic trans figure, Matsumoto ends up illustrating that the real tragedy lies not in the trans figure, but in our collective fealty to heteronormativity and traditional family structures that thwart and distort not only the queers in the midst, but everyone caught in its deadly grip.
All photos courtesy CineliciousPics.