Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses opens on a tight image of flesh entwined, skin submerged within a milky backdrop of infinite white—a tangle of literal ecstasy that renders body parts and features indistinguishable. From this ethereal introduction comes a gradual clarification of focus: two bodies separating as the shot shifts to a nearby window, with the male half of the couple springing out of bed to draw back a curtain. It all seems like a fairly straightforward Nouvelle Vague-inspired rendering of an afternoon rendezvous, with the man jokingly showing off his strength by lifting a chair as the woman remains off screen, bemoaning the brightness of the sun. The two then reconnect, this time in the subdued, naturalistic light of day, and with a bit of dialogue, accompanied by an elegant camera flourish involving a flipped mirror image, Matsumoto dispels the entire illusion of normalcy, without disturbing the overall feeling of routine.
In short, the female half of the couple is Eddie (Pîtâ), the young ingénue among a loose clique of Tokyo-based trans women, and the one most suited to passing as overtly female. This swift, surprising scene, which downshifts depressingly from extravagant reverie to ordinary, obstacle-oriented realism, lays out the entire stylistic platform of the film, in which aesthetic abandon clashes with the dream-crushing dictates of everyday life. Such conflict extends to the story itself, in which the cozy bonhomie of an extended second family is undercut by personal and financial concerns, catalyzed by the fact that its sex-worker compatriots derive income by competing for a small pool of fetish-seeking clients. It’s this situation that puts Eddie into conflict with the group’s matriarch, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), who battles her for the attentions of the suave yakuza named Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya).
Dense, frantic, and patently unclassifiable, the film is besotted with the decimation of binary strictures, a mission it pursues to extreme formal and narrative ends, sometimes to its own detriment. The central characters are a coterie of women who defy modern societal conventions while tapping into historical East Asian notions of third-gendered immutability, further employing often-Americanized male names as more costuming in their quest for aesthetic self-realization. The English-language designation (“Gay Boys”) that they give themselves identifies an explicit sexual orientation that several of them reject—or are incapable of fully accepting—but which stands as yet another label to be flouted by this gaudy gang of eccentric misfits.
Funeral Parade of Roses itself is equivalently radical, caught somewhere between freeform sketch comedy, gonzo documentary, and irony-soaked Warholian melodrama, it’s convulsive rhythms reflected in Matsumoto’s oft-anarchic shooting style. The director pulls from a wide variety of influences, at times suggesting Godard (particularly in a series of interviews with his actors, in which they discuss their thoughts on the progress of the plot), at others De Palma’s madcap interpretation thereof, sped-up footage causing burgeoning drama to suddenly crumble into ridiculous slapstick. These moments can be frustrating, but the film also generally works best at its most cartoonish, reveling in an expansive atmosphere of artifice that pools out beyond its wildly arrayed main characters and into Japanese society at large. This good-natured surrealism yields a bounty of memorable comedic images: a row of perfectly coiffed women in front of urinals, dresses hiked up above their knees; a confrontation between sharp-tongued, gussied-up Gay Boys and butch female bikers; a disguised john haplessly sneezing off his fake beard.
Forceful, self-aware artificiality remains a constant, with mirrors acting as the stylistic counterpoint to the lush environment of elaborate surface textures, as well as a conduit into the characters’ obscured inner worlds. In fact, much of the minimal narrative action is precipitated by a scene shown in flashback, centered around an adolescent Eddie getting hot and heavy with his own mirror image and the violent series of events that follows his mother catching him in the act. This forms the foundation for the somewhat spurious, overly literal Oedipal story which occupies the film’s back half, an attempt to provide a defining arc that culminates in an acutely painful finale. Here the requisite bout of self-blinding functions as a denial of the grandiose visual impulse which fueled the film’s sunnier passages, denying their hopeful optimism in favor of a tone of shame and disgust. It’s a dreary, distressing conclusion, one in which a concluding fade to white mirrors the borderless marmoreal bliss of the opening, this time with an entirely different significance.
With its shambolic structure and last-ditch bid for narrative coherence, Funeral Parade of Roses stands in sharp contrast to Matsumoto’s 1971 film Shura. That work, which also points to both the future and the past, via a nightmarish take on Jidaigeki chamber horror, pulls off a smoother integration of realist and fantastical modes, with a taut plot that supports the frequent slides into frenzied abstraction. Yet it also lacks the insane, ambitious verve and bountiful elation of this one, expressed through a vivid belief in the sustaining power of aesthetic fulfillment. Those qualities may eventually get scrapped for a tragic ending that finds a twisted rapture in the destruction of its fragile protagonist, but the colorful, mostly open-hearted depiction of a fringe world torn between joyful inclusion and defensive desperation makes for an often brilliant, and always interesting historical object.