Bara no Soretsu
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 17 September 2007
Source SPO Entertainment DVD
As the United States was experiencing a generational crisis under the Cold War, the “baby boom,” and Vietnam, Japan was undergoing something similar. Rebelling against the society of their parents, Japanese youth began experimenting with sex, drugs, and identity; suddenly centuries of shiftless culture had to accommodate unfamiliar issues like homosexuality, transvestitism, addiction, and rock music, and did so publicly. Similarly filmmakers, spurned by elders and inspired by artistic advances in both Europe and America, began to deviate from accepted forms of cinema; Kurosawa was disregarded in favor of Godard, Ozu in favor of Melville. Instead of plots based around centuries of group identity, sentimental restraint, and a respect for tradition, hints of Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller began to appear, and young Japanese actors were looking to be the next James Dean. Begun, according to most critics, with the early films of Nagisa Oshima, the Japanese New Wave movement became an indelible moment in the history of cinema, as some of the world’s most disaffected shadows were finally given a voice.
Based loosely on the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus Rex, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses not only illuminates the thriving Japanese counterculture, but also strikes aside the blatant formulas and expectations associated with film up to that point. While Matsumoto’s characters adapt the lifestyles of renowned English icons, the director himself mocks various aspects of genre films—from comedies to Westerns and even pinku—against an unsettling story of anger, envy, and revenge.
Leda and Eddie are both transvestites who work at a local gay bar, the Bar Genet, in the Shinjuku District of Tokyo. They are in love with the same man, a wealthy drug-dealer and owner of the bar named Gonda, and together they exist as opposites. Leda wears a kimono, believes in courtesy, and finds much of what occurs both at the bar and in the outside world daunting; a scene late in the film, in which she watches a march of protest by the Zero Jigen in downtown Tokyo, seems innocent until a man tries to grab her hand, sending her into fits of repulsion. Eddie, on the other hand, wears short skirts, is crass to both customers and co-workers, and enjoys taking large amounts of drugs with anyone who is willing; her friends, including a wannabe avant-garde filmmaker and his oblivious down-and-out followers, are examples of power of the Japanese underground. And while both are deceitful, Leda is weak-willed, and her love affair with Gonda leads her down a path of self-destruction.
Eddie, as Leda discovers, is also having an affair with the older man. As the film opens, we are offered a glimpse of the two caught in an embrace. Bathed in white, with only the outlines of their bodies breaking a flawless frame, they move together and fade into the background as lovers. When morning breaks and they leave Gonda’s apartment together, Leda sees them from an adjacent street. It leads to the only moment when Eddie breaks her chilling composure, fearful that Leda has seen them. She aspires to be the Bar Genet’s head madam, to change the club’s entire look and feel, and she can only do so without Leda.
Eddie’s life has been a heartbreaking nightmare. We see her, without clothes and make-up, as a young boy with long hair, living with his mother in a cramped apartment. Eddie’s father, after abandoning the family years before, has been burned out of a lone family portrait, and he remains nothing more than a charred cigarette scar, a faceless non-memory. Eddie’s mother, who beats him when he’s discovered using her lipstick and kissing a reflection, is seen bringing home a drunk man for sex while her only child sleeps downstairs. Eddie slowly, almost ceremoniously, climbs the stairs to her room and stabs both of them. At first he seems relieved, even free—he’s finally allowed to be himself without superior judgment, almost as though he’s done away with the harsh society around him. And yet he’s haunted by his mother; earlier, he had taken the burned photograph from her hands and said, “Forget about Father. You have me;” her reply was a wicked, near deranged cackle that comes to torment him.
The inner circle of Eddie’s friends is lead by Guevara, the aspiring filmmaker who, in hoping to appear inventive and independent, glues false facial hair to his chin; in an early scene, a sneeze causes the tangled mass to peel off, revealing a young cherubic face. His experimental films are droll, leaving his friends feigning adoration, and the flicking celluloid often focuses on intangible subjects—such as, in one scene, an undulating television screen. They embody a crucial theme, expressed as Eddie walks through the darkened room of an underground museum. On the floor near a far wall, beneath a collection of abstract paintings, a tape-player offers a philosophical lesson on identity:
Every man has his own mask, which he has carved for a long time. Some war the same masks all their lives, but others use a variety of masks. Some masks stress the features, but others are far from their original. Some are poor and easily distinguishable, but others are so skillfully made, they’re hardly distinguishable. People always wear masks when they face each other. They only see masks. Even if they remove their masks, their faces seldom expose themselves. Because there may be second masks. And even third masks hidden under the first ones. Therefore, people often take your masks for you. And you take theirs for them. The objective of love and hatred may be the masks… faces suffer loneliness. People try to escape from it and make news masks…
Various sentences of that recording, repeated non-diegetically throughout the film, give clues as to the inner demons of Matsumoto’s characters. They are all, in one way or another, wearing masks. The patrons who frequent the Bar Genet are not, we can assume, open about their after-dinner exploits with young transvestite men; they arrive dressed in business suits, drink alcohol and cohort with potential flings, without ever discussing their lives outside the bar; such activities are still considered immoral. The American soldier is never without a smile while, at the same time, a photograph clipped to his pack shows him holding up the pale, dead bodies of Vietnamese man. Guevara’s mask is his false beard – his attempt to subscribe to a lofty idea of “artist” – and his films, including one of a Christ-like figure, arms outstretched, reek of influence from Anthony Balch’s Towers Open Fire, a 1963 collaboration with William S. Burroughs. His closest confidant, a pot-smoking deputy, sports long hair and round-framed glasses, sculpting him into a near perfect imitation of John Lennon; and their group of friends quotes Jonas Mekas while clawing for the next fix. They are caricatures, mockingly portrayed by the director as unoriginal, impersonators—existing against everything the counterculture stands for, yet acting as though they are defining it.
But it is Leda and Eddie who wear the heaviest masks. Together they love mirrors, basking in the glow of their own images, and at individual instances in the film each asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” For Leda, the response is swift; cupping her hair before an antiquated mirror in the Bar Genet, she smiles at the question – asked, without sound, by an overlain graphic – then becomes dazed when Eddie enters the reflection. Behind her mask is a deep insecurity; she is weak, spiteful, and threatens to expose Gonda’s drug-dealing if he leaves her. This is her dim effort at having control, and she seems unmindful of Gonda’s loathing towards her. She is his ticket to wealth—with the protection of her loyalty, he can trade without worry, as long as she’s wrapped carefully around his finger. He loves Eddie, and together they conspire to remove Leda. This leads to the climax, in which the love triangle collapses in a blood-washed slew of revelations and ruin.
Matsumoto’s fondness for deconstructive ridicule provides viewers with a cinematic banquet. When detective enter the Bar Genet looking for someone, Gonda and an associate begin hiding caches of money and drugs in a backroom. The scene is accelerated and, with the two men stumbling over one another and dressing in the wrong coats, all to a double-speed rendition of the “Can-Can,” suggests a silly English comedy; the novelty heads on their coat-hangers even belong to Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. Then a silent, incongruous shot of white roses falling and the vase breaking. The motif is repeated again later, when Leda confronts Eddie about her affair with Gonda. The two are instantly clad in cowboy hats and holding corked toy guns; spectators rise into view from behind the bar and curtains, and a snare drum sounds. The two adversaries circle one another, eyes locked and hands resolute. The vase falls, the roses scatter. A woman shields her eyes. They fire, corks pop out, and the two descend into vulgar heckling represented by cartoon voice bubbles: “Badger,” “Skunk,” “Slut,” “Fairy.” They then fall together on the bar floor, rolling and tearing away at clothes and wigs.
In an interview for Masters of Cinema, Matsumoto insists his uncommon use of chronology is insignificant, referring to the film’s structure as being much like a “mosaic.” While this may be true – the constant shuffling of memories, the repetition of anomalous images – the filmmaker is, in fact, reinventing an untouched device of his elders. In his book on Japanese New Wave, Eros Plus Massacre, David Desser writes that chronology, especially in the films of Ozu, was used as a way to avoid dramatic moments. In films such as Early Summer, there is no concept of how much time is passing, as the director uses seemingly inconsistent cutaways to avoid establishing time; a much talked-about wedding is never shown, but rather implied using long shots and close-ups of fields and the bride’s family. There is no build to excitement, only a continual display of “dailiness.” In Funeral Parade of Roses, “dailiness” exists for only a moment, descending without hesitation into something shocking and climactic—the mother’s hard crow over her son, Gonda beating Leda, the Sophoclean finale. In Matsumoto’s eyes, there is no ordinariness.
Similarly, there is a sense that much of what we believe to be real – the sexual exploits of the Bar Genet employees, the titular march through Tokyo, Eddie and Leda’s self-destruction – may be nothing more than a film itself. The sex scene between Eddie and the American soldier, offered to use in unsteady close-ups, is revealed as a fake within minutes when film equipment is shown surrounding the bed; a camera is centered on Eddie, who thrashes beneath the sheets in ecstasy, as the soldier remains motionless and upright, away from her. In the corner of the room, hushed and incompatible, is Leda, who confesses to the camera in the very next shot how much she enjoyed witnessing production. These interviews, also conducted with transvestites and gay men on the streets of Japan, seem out of place and all too real, as though Matsumoto were filming a documentary rather than feature. Often, the transition between scenes is the millisecond appearance of a clapboard or intertitle stressing some aspect of the story; other times, they are flashes of naked men, one with a white flower tucked between his legs, or a memory of Eddie’s mother bleeding, silently.
Still, Matsumoto’s style isn’t one of forced divergence. He pays homage to another underground filmmaker, Jean Genet, in the name of Leda’s bar, as well as American filmmaker Shirley Clark and her documentary Portrait of Jason. Many of Matsumoto’s scenes emerge as beautiful variations – on Clark and Balch and Warhol – including the use of the “Mirror, mirror” chant. (Some have suggested that the shower scene, in which Eddie’s androgynous body is fully revealed, is an imitation of the legendary moment from Hitchcock’s Psycho.) He also demonstrates a respect for mainstream Japanese cinema by casting Yoshio Tsuchiya, known as Rikichi from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, as Gonda, as well as fellow director Masahiro Shinoda in a cameo role.
But much of the cast is young and untrained—the “roses” referenced so many times throughout the storyline. Toyoasaburo Uchi as Guevara and Emiko Azuma as Eddie’s mother, though both given limited screen time, carve distinct roles into the film as a quintessential flower-child and a volatile elder, respectively; for both, Funeral Parade of Roses would be their only film. Osamu Ogasawara portrays Leda with definiteness—she is an outcast among outcasts, constantly reduced to looks of sadness and abandonment, but also contemptibility and rage. Peter, portraying Eddie, is an astounding performer; still a teenager, and with no film experience whatsoever, he is a harbinger of complexity and professionalism, and gives a great and altogether underrated performance. Interestingly, sixteen years later, he would appear as Kyoami in Kurosawa’s Ran, completing an odd, decades-old cycle of working in the subversive underground to acting for a mainstream auteur.
Matsumoto, though, would not follow in the mold of his predecessors. After making only three feature films over the course of five years, he returned to his original career—directing short films. Now 75, he has returned to the full-length format only once, with Dogura Magura in 1988, and not directed a single work since. His work, unreleased commercially throughout much of the world, is available mainly through bootlegs and Internet postings—rightly so, perhaps, in the mind of a nontraditional filmmaker.
Ironically, Japanese New Wave reached its pinnacle in 1969, the same year of Matsumoto’s debut feature, and then faded into obscurity; by the end of the 1970s, it had become just another notch in film history. Yet years later, it would still be the target of criticism by many conventional Japanese filmmakers, who felt the rise of underground films had ruined turnout at local theatres. (In fact, it was the rise of television, satirized by Ozu in his film Good Morning, that kept moviegoers away.) But Matsumoto’s debut has outlasted them. Still circulated among independent and university theatres, it remains a strong work of art, influence, and social consciousness, and has become a modern staple in LGBT circles. But, more than that, it’s an astounding testament to the power of film.