“Define Frenzy” is a series of weekly essays for Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read last year’s essays here.
The title of Japanese New Wave director Toshiro Matsumoto’s queer tragicomedy is filthy—so much filthier than I had originally thought.
His 1969 film Funeral Parade of Roses is a bizarre, wild, sometimes emotional ride that revels in some of the more enjoyably seedy and strange aspects of queer life. Yet, in spite of its eccentricity, which combines narrative, documentary and experimental forms, the collage-like nature of the film gets at an inherent truth about the way queer people experience life, time and their identities.
Matsumoto’s film explores the queer subculture of Tokyo, which proliferates with what the subtitles describe as “gay boys.” Existing as not quite drag queens, not quite transvestites, not exactly trans people and not quite regular old homosexuals, “gay boys,” as depicted in Funeral Parade of Roses, seem to have their own community, and the term its own cultural identity marker. Gay boys work at gay bars, they present as femme and female, alternate between “he” and “she” pronouns, but their identity seems to be all its own, an extension of the varying ways of being within queerness.
It’s within this community that we are introduced to Eddie (Japanese trans actor Peter, also featured in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran), the star gay boy at the most popular drag club in Tokyo, but we’re introduced to them via an intense sex scene with an, at that time, unnamed lover (who will go by Gonda later). Matsumoto shoots and edits this scene, so loving of the slim, almond-milk-skinned Eddie while avoiding showing any sex organs. The apparently diegetic sounds of pleasure in the sex scene almost transcend confines of gender and of time: We’re given no starting point or end point to the sex act, and Eddie’s body is abstracted to the point where their gender is moot. Orgasmic moans seem to be disembodied, appearing in scenes where there is no sex. Queerness begins to affect time, against conventional constructions of sound, image and pace.
With regard to that last remark, Matsumoto returns to this scene throughout the film, from different angles. The narrative film within the film examines the rivalry Eddie has with the Madame of the drag club, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), but more potently, the effect sex has on Eddie themselves. The opening scene is a domino effect, unleashing an unsettling, grotesque, screwy approach to the way Eddie sees the world, both imaginative and heartbreaking.
Sex, for Eddie, ends up causing them to disassociate; they walk around an art gallery and faint, memories of their childhood and their relationship with their mother and the absence of their father plaguing Eddie’s nightmares. Matsumoto returns to scenes over and over again, reusing sequences in different narrative contexts, deconstructing the scenes themselves, reverse engineering them. We return to a random insert of a line of boys, nude and facing away from the camera. The last boy in the row has a white rose between his butt cheeks. It’s a feverish depiction of trauma, but also an insight into queer temporality.
Queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam argued, in their “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies” published in Halberstam’s 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, that there was such a thing as “queer time” and “queer space,” that these conceptual, but fundamental, ways of navigating the world existed, for queer people, in opposition to standard, heteronormative institutions and prescribed ways of living. That queer people often must be “born again” so to speak—in the process of coming out, in the process of understanding that many conventional narrative markers of self-actualization and milestones do not exist in the same manner they do for straight people—queer time and temporality suggests an inherently different way of seeing and living in the world. Halberstam quipped, “Queer time for me is the dark nightclub, the perverse turn away from the narrative coherence of adolescence—early adulthood—marriage—reproduction—child rearing—retirement—death.”
Funeral Parade of Roses exists in opposition to conventional linearity, combining elements of nonfiction filmmaking and experimental film, radically using animation and reversals, speeding up and slowing down scenes. It keys into Halberstam’s concept of queer time, both conceptually and ideologically. Eddie might be ambivalent about settling down with their lover Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), but there’s such an array of image- and sound-based flashbacks that they must sift through these in order to understand who they are.
Oh, the title. The title. It’s sex that sets the events of the film in motion, the jealousy, the rivalry, the self-loathing, the self-doubt. It’s anal sex, Eddie as the bottom. We revisit that sex scene several times, and each successive time is more revealing. If in the opening of the film the scene is depicted as an erotic, artistic abstraction, following presentations become ever more pornographic (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Gender and power dynamics become clearer—interspersed with the line of boys, the last one with the white rose in his butt.
The thing about Funeral Parade of Roses, which I did not know going in, is that it’s a queer appropriation and retelling of Oedipus Rex, with a kind of Jean Genet-ish wily sensibility. Make of that what you will. What Matsumoto does in this film, however, is link time and sex together. He, for better or worse, pathologizes anal sex and trauma within the confines of this movie. Sex triggers Eddie’s memories of their complicated relationship with their mother, and the almost non-existent one with their father. The repetitions, the reinventions, the dizzying assault of image and sound: All relate back to the “self” in the way that queer people must change, reconstruct and redress the way they present and be in the world, in multiple spaces, rooms and contexts.
Funeral Parade of Roses is filthy because it’s a reference to the many gay boys that fuck and get fucked (their anus a rose), and for whom that anal sex changes the way they experience time: in that moment, for the rest of their lives, both. If queerness, for some people, is marked by (good and bad) trauma, life becomes fragmented, memory a Möbius strip. For Eddie and the other workers at the drag club (which may also be a low key bordello?), fragmentation of their lives is the norm. Nonlinearity is how they live. They have learned to navigate around it; we have learned to live with it.
The 4K restoration of Funeral Parade of Roses will be rereleased on June 9 in New York at the Quad Cinema, San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission and Toronto at the Royal Theater. Additional cities follow thereafter.
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.