Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)

“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)

The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ran (乱, Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

ran posterAkira Kurosawa is arguably the most internationally well known Japanese director – after all, Seven Samurai is the one “foreign film” everyone who “doesn’t do subtitles” has seen. Though he’s often thought of as being quintessentially Japanese, his fellow countryman often regarded him as too Western in terms of his filming style. They may have a point when you consider that he made three different movies inspired by the works of Shakespeare (The Bad Sleep Well – Hamlet, Throne of Blood – Macbeth, and Ran – King Lear) though in each case it’s clear that “inspired” is very much the right word for these very liberal treatments.

In the case of Ran (乱) – a loose adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa moves the story to feudal Japan and an ageing king who this time has three sons rather than three daughters. This leaves Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) with a smaller problem than Lear’s though in his original idea of making his eldest son his heir with the other two inheriting smaller roles it’s clear things aren’t going to end well. Just as in the original play, the oldest two sons Taro and Jiro sing their father’s praises with cynical glee but the youngest and most sincere, Saburo, refuses to play this game as his respect for his father is genuine. Unfortunately, Saburo’s honesty sees him banished from his father’s kingdom and his share of responsibility given over to his treacherous brothers. Predictably, neither is satisfied with what they’ve been given and it’s not long before a familial conflict has sparked into a bloody civil war.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child….Hidetora is not quite as far gone as Lear in Shakespeare’s original text at the beginning of the film yet he is still unable to see that his oldest two sons have placed personal ambition ahead of filial piety. Hidetora was once a fearsome, if cruel, warrior, famous for burning enemy villages and creating peace only through destruction. He’s old now, and tired and so he proposes to hand over the running of the kingdom to his eldest son, yet – he wants to remain the de facto leader until the very end. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Taro, or more to the point his ambitious wife Lady Kaede. Hidetora is thrown out of Taro’s castle and then also from Jiro’s before all out war erupts between the two leaving him totally isolated – a king without a kingdom.

Hidetora’s true madness begins when he realises not only how little regard his eldest two sons hold for him, but also that his failure to recognise the true nature of the situation has lead to the deaths of the people in his care that have remained loyal to him to the very end. As the enemy begin to engulf the castle, concubines begin helping each other to commit suicide in order to avoid ravishment while others try to escape but are cut down by arrow fire. This is all his own fault – his ruthless cruelty has been filtered down to his two oldest sons who, as he did, will stop at nothing in the pursuit of power. What is a king if not the father of a nation, and as a father he has failed. Neither Taro or Jiro are worthy of the offices afforded to them and lack both basic humanity and the princely power one needs to become the unifying force of a people.

Only too late does Hidetora see the wisdom in Saburo’s words and finally understand that he has alienated the only one of his children that truly loved him. From this point on his madness increases and Nakaidai’s performance becomes increasingly mannered and theatrical as if Hidetora himself is acting in another play which only he can see. Wandering and lonely, the once great king is reduced to the estate of a beggar led only by his fool and sheltered by the ruins of a castle which he himself burned down.

However, as great as Nakadai is (and he always is), he’s very nearly upstaged by the young Mieko Harada as one of the all time great screen villainesses with the Lady Macbeth a-like Lady Kaede. Filled with a vengeful fury, Kaede is unafraid to use every weapon at her disposal to achieve her goal. No sooner is she brought the news of her first plan’s failure in the death of her husband than she’s embarking on a plot to seduce his brother which includes getting him to execute his wife. Vile as Kaede’s actions often are, her desire for revenge is an understandable one when you consider that Hidetora was responsible for the deaths of her family leaving her to become a trophy bride for the son of the man that killed them. Viewed from another angle, it would be easy to sympathise with Kaede’s desire to rid the world of these cruel and tyrannical lords were it not for her insistence on the death of Lady Sue – a woman in exactly the same position as herself whose death would not actually advance her cause very much at all.

Kurosawa films all of this from a distance. We, the audience, almost become the gods he speaks of – the ones who weep for us, watching silent and helpless, unable to save us from ourselves. We see the world for what it is – chaos, horses and men and blood. The battles aren’t glorious, they are frenetic, frightening and ultimately pointless. Though for all that there is a beauty to it too and the sheer scale of the production with its colour coded princes and immense armies is one the like of which we will never see again.

Ran presents us with a prognosis which is even more pessimistic than that of Lear. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, as profoundly tragic as it is, there is at least the glimmer of hope. There is a new, rightful king and the idea that something has been restored. Here there is no such resolution, we are the blind man casting a stick around the edge of a precipice, entirely alone and unable to see the gaping chasm which extends before us into which we may plunge headlong driven only by the chaos in our own hearts. In the end, Kurosawa’s message is not so different from Shakespeare’s – all the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Fathers and sons must strive to understand each other, and themselves, lest we fall into the eternal chaos which leads us to build our very own hell here on Earth.


Ran is currently playing in UK cinemas in a brand new 4K restoration courtesy of StudioCanal!