A restored masterpiece unmasks Tokyo's underground gay subculture of the 1960s
"Each man has his own mask," a voice intones in an art gallery filled with paintings of misshapen, monstrous faces. "Some will wear the same mask for their entire life. Some will wear several masks based on their needs." The voice projects from a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the carpeted ground and it sends Eddie, a gender nonconforming Tokyo bar hostess, into a violent reverie about her childhood trauma. Toshio Masumoto's radical 1969 masterpiece of queer cinema Funeral Parade of Roses, currently re-released in a new restoration, portrays Tokyo's underground LBGT culture as a similar gallery of masks, ones that people wear and occasionally let slip.
Eddie—a tall, slim, fashionable mod who could have stepped right out of a William Klein photoshoot—works in a gay bar (the Genet, no less) by night, entertaining male clientele, and spends the rest of her time with a group of radical leftist filmmakers who quote Jonas Mekas, smoke a lot of marijuana, and have raucous parties. The audience lives inside Eddie's head as she flashes back on her harrowing past to slowly reveal the chaotic whole of her life. Meanwhile, Eddie and her friends live completely in their own world, with almost no interaction with the dominant culture, except the occasional fistfight or protest.
In Noh theater, one of Japan's most important art forms, performers do not "put on" a mask; instead, they become the mask in order to portray the character. As a teenager, abandoned by her father and hated by her mother, Eddie one day looks in the mirror, applies her mother's lipstick, and cries. She kisses her own reflection: finally, the performer has become the mask. "People always wear masks and see masks when they look at others," the voice from the gallery recites, a grim warning for Eddie's future. She faces immediate violence from her mother because of this lipstick incident, and later the characters attend a funeral of one of their own who has committed suicide. It's hard to watch, bringing to mind the atrocious emotional and physical violence trans people have had to face—and, of course, still do.
But Masumoto also understands the sensual pleasures of putting on and taking off a mask. Eddie is lovingly filmed in the shower, washing off her makeup; Leda, madame of the Genet, carefully removes her leg hair with a straight razor; Eddie and her friends apply thick stripes of eyeliner in front of the mirror. Naked flesh is fetishized, erotic scenes are shot in close-ups so tight the audience has to work to make out what's happening. Eddie's naked body appears smooth and creamy beneath her lovers' hands, blending into the background as if to suggest infinite pleasure. But sex itself also wears a few masks: it is carnivalesque, as Eddie's sex scenes are occasionally scored by an organ version of "The More We Get Together" and accompanied by dramatic swooping trapeze-like camera movements; and it can be disturbing, as when Eddie's mother and lover are spied upon (a common trope of slasher films in the decades to come).
Funeral Parade of Roses' form follows its function; the audience is ripped out of its fictional universe at several key moments by documentary footage of the actors speaking about their roles, and about their own participation in Tokyo's real-life "gay boy" scene. For instance, during an erotic scene between Eddie and an American bar patron, her head rolling back with pleasure, the frame suddenly pulls back to reveal the cast and crew surrounding the bed, all of them watching Peter (the brilliant first-time actor who plays Eddie) loll around, faking passion for the camera. Matsumoto seems to challenge the audience here: What more is a film than another mask? And fittingly, by the film's end, Eddie's mask has fallen away completely, and she turns from spectator to chilling Oedipal spectacle. Once nearly impossible to see, Funeral Parade of Roses is a dizzying pop experimental epic that bounds off the screen and screams to be heard.
Newly restored from the original camera negative, Funeral Parade of Roses is currently playing at the Quad in New York City, and opens this Friday, June 16, at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Additional screenings in the US and Canada continue through the summer.
Dana Reinoos is a writer and former film programmer based in Milwaukee, WI.