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Still from Funeral Parade of Roses
Still from Funeral Parade of Roses

The cult 60s film that captured Tokyo’s queer underground

A new-wave classic that inspired Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Toshio Matsumoto’s film feels shockingly relevant today

How to describe Funeral Parade of Roses, Toshio Matsumoto’s surreal debut of 1969? Is it an irreverent blast of new-wave cool to rank alongside A Bout de Souffle and Daisies? A Freudian descent into the Tokyo demi-monde whose coolly detached eye helped inspire Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange? In truth, Matsumoto’s film is all of the above – but more than that, it’s a shockingly candid glimpse into Japan’s nascent transgender scene that made a star of its lead, Peter, well before Andy Warhol put trans performers in the spotlight with films like Trash (1970) and Women in Revolt (1971).

Matsumoto, a video artist and professor who died at the age of 85 this year, was inspired by Warhol’s Factory troupe in his darkly satirical tale of two drag queens vying for the affections of a local barman. Stocking his film with real-world characters from the city’s community of cross-dressing and transgender sex workers, the director avoids sensationalising a subject that had become scandal-sheet fodder in 60s Japan, allowing his leads a nuance and complexity that feels strikingly well judged even today.

He also allows these characters to be sexy – especially the luminous Peter, who went on to star in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, as the fairest queen of them all and object of her love rival’s jealous attention. Funeral Parade of Roses is loaded with sensual imagery – lips brushing lightly up against butts, lingering slo-mos in the shower and, memorably, a line-up of naked men with their backs turned to the camera, a rose planted between one guy’s butt-cheeks. In one flashback scene, a young boy applies lipstick in the mirror away from the prying eyes of his mum, who resents his latent sexuality. Recognising himself as if for the first time, he leans in for a kiss, a poignant moment that foreshadows the film’s grisly denouement, inspired by Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex.

Matsumoto undercuts this sensuality with weird, meta moments that, in classic new-wave fashion, emphasise the artifice of what we’re seeing on screen. Without warning, he might zoom out during a sex scene to reveal the camera crew in shot, or conduct talking-head interviews with members of the cast (“I like being a queen.” “How come?” “I was born that way.”) These tricks aren’t merely film-school gimmickry, though – they underline ideas that would later be popularised by academics such as Judith Butler, who argued that gender, far from being a fixed essence assigned at birth, was a learned set of attributes to be ‘performed’. In Japan, these ideas are being contested in the public arena to this day – though trans people in the country have been allowed to change their legal gender since 2003, they can only do so if diagnosed with a mental condition (gender identity disorder), a source of consternation for transgender activists, particularly in the west.

“Matsumoto connected the transgender (community) with the social movement of the 1960s,” says Hirofumi Sakamoto, director of the Postwar Japan Moving Image Archive, of the promiscuous relationship between Tokyo’s avant-garde art scene, drug-fuelled counterculture and transgender community in the film. “To (portray) these people’s existence was pioneering.” Indeed, Funeral launched the career of its undoubted star, Peter, who joined the likes of Miwa Akihiro and Carrousel Maki as a household name the 1960s. Sakamoto says that the success of these figures should not be taken as a reliable indicator of enlightened attitudes at the time, however. “Peter worked as a pop star and made people aware of the presence of transgender people. However, society did not think about the rights of transgender people. The public enjoyed it irresponsibly.”

In fact, Matsumoto’s film was a response to a social phenomenon at least a decade in the making. Though effeminate men had been a prominent part of Japanese society through kabuki theatre and the nimaime pretty boys of 20s cinema, the country’s first ‘gay boom’ (gei bumu) arrived in the late 1950s, after new laws designed to curb prostitution ironically “opened up (space) for new sex-related businesses catering to homosexual men and cross dressers”, as Marc McLelland writes in his book Queer Japan From Pacific War to the Internet Age. Unlike in the US, for example, gay bars in Japan could for the most part operate without fear of being raided by the police, and homosexuality and cross-dressing were not forbidden by law. (There’s a scene in the film where three queens swagger down a busy street in fashionable 60s garb, clobbering three cis girls who hurl homophobic abuse at them.)

Though sex change operations were not unheard of in the 50s, they became more common in the 60s, often as a way for sex workers to earn more money. The arrival of a French touring troupe called Le Carrousel in 1963 was revolutionary in this regard; hormones became a fixture of the scene and the group’s transgender performers were dubbed ‘blue boys’ (buru boi) in the tabloid frenzy that followed. Matsumoto’s film arrived in 1969, in what was to become a dark chapter in the history of LGBTQ rights in Japan. This was the year of a landmark ruling, as Buzzfeed notes, which saw a doctor prosecuted for performing sex change operations, under laws created in WWII under the influence of Nazi eugenics. Sex change operations were effectively outlawed, a decision that would not be overturned until the new century. But Funeral Parade of Roses – the Japanese for ‘roses’, bara, translates as something like ‘pansy’ – remains an essential document of defiance from the era.

Funeral Parade of Roses screens as part of London Film Festival this weekend. Go to the website for details