Before Divine, Laverne Cox and the leading ladies of “Tangerine” there was Peter, who in 1969 helped make “Funeral Parade of Roses” both a party and a procession. Toshio Matsumoto’s subversive drama starts like a dream, a black-and-white vision of bodies entwined in momentary escape, before reality intervenes: Eddie (Peter, also known as Pita) and Gonda’s (Yoshio Tsuchiya) love affair is an illicit one, and at risk of being undone by the fact that Gonda is already spoken for. That’s the central conflict in “Funeral Parade of Roses,” but describing this transgressive take on “Oedipus Rex” purely in terms of plot would be as limiting as calling the King of Thebes slightly confused.
The title is a double entendre of sorts: “Rose” carries the same connotation in Japanese that “pansy” does in English, with Eddie getting pride of place as the brightest flower in Matsumoto’s bouquet. Some of the others are wilting, though: Not all is well in Shinjuku, once described as “a first-rate second-rate neighborhood” and to this day the most eye-popping area in Tokyo. To say that Eddie and his cohort are shunned by society would falsely imply that they long to be part of it, but the fact remains that their exploits put them firmly out of step with the squares of their day (and, indeed, ours as well).
“Why did you become a gay boy?” one of them is asked, perhaps by Matsumoto himself; the answer: “Because I like being a girl.” It’s a question addressed to several characters, who slip in and out of their onscreen personas as easily as they slip into the drag bars where much of the film takes place. They host orgiastic parties where they dance naked, drink and quote Jonas Mekas (“All definitions of cinema have been erased. All the doors are now open”). As such, they walk a fraught path that’s all their own — and without a clear destination. This devil-may-care lifestyle gives “Funeral Parade of Roses” the feeling of a French New Wave drama that takes the sex and violence even further than Godard and Truffaut ever did.
An avowed influence on “A Clockwork Orange,” the film has been restored and rereleased by Cinelicious Pics and Cinefamily, two of Los Angeles’ most notable bastions of cinephilia. The effect it had on Kubrick is clear: Matsumoto’s style is aggressive, almost hallucinatory, with frequent cutaways to test patterns, archival footage and other visuals that will keep your eyes peeled open. Like its ensemble, “Funeral Parade of Roses” refuses easy categorization.
Too much is never enough for Matsumoto, who just passed away in April. He goes so far as to include a brief interview with Peter himself about his thoughts on Eddie and the film in general (“I just do what the director tells me to”) and is intent on making us not just watch his movie but experience it is a full-body sensation. The result is very much a trip, the kind you might not be able to make sense of at a very step of a way but later, after returning to reality, will be glad to have embarked on.
With chapter titles like “Oh, the Empire of Roses,” “The Sun, the Severed Head” and “The World Is About to End,” Matsumoto makes his alluring fatalism plain. But just because Eddie and his friends know they’re not all long for this world doesn’t mean there’s nothing to enjoy in the meantime: Late in the movie, a man in a suit and glasses appears onscreen to remind us to “look forward to the next film.” Nearly 50 years later, we’re still waiting for one quite like “Funeral Parade of Roses.”
“Funeral Parade of Roses” will open in limited release in New York City on June 9 and Los Angeles on June 16, with other cities to follow.