Jason Julier returns with his weekly look at Asian cinema.

Please note, this is a reprint of an earlier Eastern Premise, which was produced in conjunction with Kubrick, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second’s recent exploration of the filmmaker. In an attempt to maintain some kind of organisation within Eastern Premise I’ve decided to run it again, in the order originally intended by Jason.  

Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second is currently all things Kubrick, and Eastern Premise didn’t want to miss out on the party. Step forward Bara no soretsu, from here on in known as Funeral Parade Of Roses; an alleged favourite of Stanley Kubrick and a noticeable influence on A Clockwork Orange. To some it may seem a bizarre choice, but the film has stood the test of time and introduced its viewers to a unique gay subculture beneath a bustling 1960’s Tokyo.

Released by the incredibly influential Nihon Arts Theatre Guild and directed by Toshio Matsumoto, Funeral Parade Of Roses is his debut feature length film.  With a background in art and painting, Matsumoto started his career with avant-garde short films, documentaries and performance pieces. Even to this day Matsumoto remains relatively unknown in the West, partially due to the fact he only mustered four feature films. The main focus of his work until the early 90’s remained entrenched in the experimental genre, which is well worth investigating. Only a few years ago his debut piece Ginrin (1955) was found after being presumed lost and a Japanese DVD box set has collected several of his experimental works in one convenient release.

The inspiration for Funeral Parade of Roses is an Athenian tragedy, which Matsumoto reveals in the Masters of Cinema DVD interview, is a primary source for many of his films. Key themes from this ancient classic are brought to life with its focus on dark secrets and the bizarre. The masks that we create to shroud these secrets are highlighted during the underground art exhibition sequence in the film. This is particularly true of the charismatic Eddie, who is haunted by his past and struggles to maintain his new persona.

If we cast ourselves back to the tail end of the 1960’s it was very much a decade of change; one that would shape our own culture today. While a gay counter culture was developing in America, in Japan gays were relatively unseen and hidden away. Funeral Parade of Roses offers the first insight into their world for many not only domestically, but also internationally. Prior to its release, Japanese men were rampaging samurai or dissociated war veterans, not wonderfully dressed in female clothing and enjoying new freedoms. A perfect analogy is the casting of Yoshio Tsuchiya, previously seen in Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai; here he takes the role of Gonda; gay bar owner and lover to its most popular drag queen, Eddie.

The opening sequence is an intimate scene between Gonda and Eddie, illuminated by the stark use of white, complete with a haunting soundtrack. This could be any couple, anywhere. The precision of each shot and orientation of characters within our field of vision show the strong influence of the French New Wave and Matsumoto’s artistic background. The choice of music is brilliant and far ahead of its time. The selections are often the polar opposite of what you would expect. One intimate scene plays out to a hesitant Blackpool-esque organ accompaniment, another pitches the rapid attempt to conceal contraband against a distorted electronic deconstruction. These compositions, their style and execution would influence many filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick.

Matsumoto’s experience with documentaries proved to be a useful tool, as the film blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. Funeral Parade Of Roses could be a fly-on-the-wall investigation; a voice from behind the camera probes scenesters and adding to the disorientating mix is the casting. The majority of roles are played by non-actors, including many just playing themselves or their real day jobs. Matsumoto relied on opinions from gay friends to cast the role of Gonda, but the search for Eddie was one that threatened the film itself. Eventually the hunt led Matsumoto and his team to a gay bar in Roppongi, where a worker by the name of Peter encapsulated everything they sought for the role. With no prior acting experience, Peter plays himself onscreen and possesses that ‘star quality’ which captures your attention. Unquestionably beautiful, Peter calls upon his own experiences to add depth, detail and vibrancy to the pivotal character. It is the role he was born to play, one he would never eclipse. Although interestingly, he did reappear in a 90’s episode of the infamous Guinea Pig series playing a transvestite.

While Funeral Parade Of Roses exposes an element of society relatively unknown to many, the core emotions are all too familiar. The quest for love or more specifically peace is a central theme. Eddie is pursued not only by the presence of his gay bar nemesis Leda, but also demons from the past. Throw in a thriving sixties pop-culture, liberal attitude to sex and drugs, and you have a melting pot of a Japan not only emerging into a modern era but also the arrival of a new filmmaker.

This is a film that demands repeated viewings and your appreciation of it only grows. The first time will open your eyes to a new world; subsequent exposures highlight the brilliance of the directing, editing, cinematography and soundtrack. Having watched Funeral Parade Of Roses again on this occasion with A Clockwork Orange very much in my thoughts; it’s startling. The imagery and editing are hugely influential, particularly the use of close-ups. Right up until the closing scene where we become one with Eddie’s eyeballs, a setting that could so easily be switched with Alex DeLarge’s aversion therapy.

Thanks to Masters of Cinema you can experience the splendour of Funeral Parade Of Roses as part of a superb DVD release. An excellent print is backed up by an informative Matsumoto interview, lavish booklet, a poster section and a very welcome commentary track by the director.