“The spirit of an individual reaches its absolute through infinite negation” according to the title card which concludes Toshio Matsumoto’s anarchic voyage through the counter culture underworld of late ‘60s Tokyo, Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Bara no Soretsu). Repurposing Oedipus Rex as mediated through Pasolini as an exploration of the crushing impossibility of true authenticity, Funeral Parade of Roses is also an atypical portrait of a city in transition. Like many a post-war melodrama, it’s a story of Tokyo bar hostesses only we find ourselves not in the comparatively upscale Ginza where unlucky women dream of escape into more conventional lives, but the grungier Shinjuku in which those who have no desire to attain conventionality, of that kind at least, have found a kind of freedom to become their truer selves.
Our hero, Eddie (Peter), is something of an ephebe pursuing his destiny as a “gay boy” (cross-dressing bar hostess) at bar Genet where he has entered a relationship with the much older proprietor, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who is growing tired of his current lover, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the bar’s mama-san. At the risk of mixing our metaphors, or at least allegories, in Greek mythology Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan. In any case, the primary crisis is one familiar from any other bar girl drama where Leda might be the melancholy heroine, facing the tragedy of her fading youth and an increasingly uncertain future. We see Eddie leave an apartment arm in arm with Gonda, a hearse passing ominously in front of them, while Leda looks on with scorn perching in front of a street corner convenience store to confirm that her suspicions are in fact correct.
Leda is or will be the victim of Eddie’s quest for a place of his own, displaced within a world of displacement. She will eventually find her own kind of escape, dressed in a wedding dress and surrounded by white roses but drenched in romantic tragedy. Eddie meanwhile is plagued by visions of a traumatic past and a feeling of alienation. “I feel abandoned by life” he later complains to a counter culture friend, Guevara (Toyosaburo Uchiyama), who has adopted a strange fake beard in addition to his fake name. In the gallery in which Eddie meets him, a record is playing to remind us that we are each wearing a mask and that perhaps our mask may fit us so comfortably that we have forgotten the shape of our own face. We can never be sure if we are seeing those in front of us as they truly are or merely observing the masks they have chosen to wear. Beneath one mask may lie another, and another, into infinity hiding even from ourselves our truest identity in the truest form of loneliness.
Eddie too is searching for himself, though the implication that his present persona is just that may be an uncomfortable one. To undercut it, Matsumoto frequently breaks the fourth wall to interview some of his non-professional actors and other men in the street in this particular corner of Shinjuku. They tell him that perhaps they don’t have a “reason” for becoming a “gay boy”, only that it’s who they are and have always been and in that it makes them happy (aside from one self contradictory woman who gives answers only filled with nihilistic despair). The central thesis, however, is that an identity only reaches its absolute through its own negation, which is to say that Eddie must destroy himself to become himself. Something which he perhaps does on learning the ironic truth to which he was blind that has led him towards his grim destiny.
A film critic making an unexpected, meta appearance talks to us of the “cursed destiny of man” while Eddie walks through a burial ground sinking into the sea and casually wishes that the whole country would sink to the bottom of the ocean. A student protestor justifies his use of violence as an essential good because it works towards the end of violence and not its perpetuation, but Eddie’s violence solves nothing and eventually becomes an act of self harm that propels him towards his nihilistic destiny. Yet this is a violent age in which opposition is the only sign of life. Eddie rebels against himself to rebel against the society, a rose wounded by his own thorns, whose only refuge lies in the artifice which mirrors authenticity.
Funeral Parade of Roses is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th of May courtesy of the BFI in a new 4K restoration. The set also includes an audio commentary by Chris D, the original Japanese trailer plus the US trailer for the 2017 restoration, and eight Toshio Matsumoto shorts including Nishijin (1961), The Song of Stone (1963), Ecstasis (1969), Metastasis (1971), Expansion (1972), Mona Lisa (1973), Siki Soku Ze Ku (1975) and Atman (1975). The two-disc edition also comes with a 34-page booklet featuring essays by Jim O’Rourke, the BFI’s Espen Bale, Hirofumi Sakamoto with Hiroshi Eguchi, and Koji Kawasaki.
Original trailer (English subtitles)