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Take You to the Gay Bar: Funeral Parade of Roses on Blu-ray

  As the nineteen-sixties turned into the seventies across the world, gay rights were as much on the agenda as women's rights, and many cultures recognised and reflected that. But while the West opted for comedy (Staircase, Norman, Is That You?) or quiet drama (Sunday Bloody Sunday), in Japan one filmmaker had decided the orientation was ripe for portraying the rebellion his country were experiencing as students revolted there too. The director was Matsumoto Toshio, and he had spent the sixties creating a run of short experimental works that had garnered him some attention in artistic circles, though he was never to become a mainstream talent, and efforts like Funeral Parade of Roses demonstrated why.

It was a barrage of wild imagery that loosely took as its narrative the classical tale of Oedipus Rex, only this time Oedipus didn't marry his mother and kill his father, it was more a grimly comical reversal of that premise. For his leading actor, Toshio sought an actual "gay boy", as they were called in Japan at the time (or gei boi, to be more exact), and hired Peter, a transvestite, as he would be termed back then, nicknamed after Peter Pan for his youthful, androgynous looks. With his eyes widely spaced, he also has the appearance of someone from another planet, and his personality was like little else in Japanese film in 1968 when this was released. His regular haunts were the gay bars where businessmen picked up people like him, as seen in the movie.

The very concept of a man being sexually attracted to another man was radical enough in the buttoned-down Japan of the sixties, yet in the film industry creatives were able to let their imaginations take flight and depict increasingly outlandish situations. It was not all Godzilla movies and James Bond knock-offs, as the main studios and independents alike were portraying stories, characters and situations that most ordinary Japanese citizens would never have encountered in their day to day lives. In his film, Toshio emphasised these were not merely men pretending to be women, they were akin to a new gender, with male bodies and personalities that staked out some middle ground between man and woman, pushing back some futuristic sexual frontier.

Peter became the most visible of this sort of person and went on to appear in many other films in a variety of roles. But Toshio had his revolution to depict, and went about it with a rat-a-tat editing style that could leave the viewer giddy or downright confused, even taking characters who played the kind of filmmakers and happening-instigators to appear in his jumble of a story, and mixing them with vox pops with actual gay boys, including Peter - he is interviewed about what he thinks about the ending a while before we actually see it, thus sabotaging the supposed shock. Yet there was humour as well: the three transvestites strutting around gives way to them answering the call of nature at urinals, or the cartoonish girl gang who pick a fight with them.

Funeral Parade of Roses was restored in 2017, and that print is released by the BFI on two-disc Blu-ray with a number of short works by Toshio, tracing his journey for about fifteen years into the Japanese avant garde. First, from 1961 there is Nishijin, displaying his interest in worker's rights that would be labelled Communist in some quarters, as the tough nature kimono weavers' jobs is contrasted with the paradoxically gentle and beautiful quality of the end results. Accompanied by an eerie score, we see image upon image of the looms operating, sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine, reluctant to show faces until eventually the society that has spawned these practices is placed into sharper relief: spirituality, business, fashion.

Second is The Song of Stone, a television special made from a series of still photographs from photographer Ernest Satow designed to illustrate how stone is taken from the ground or mountains in quarries and put to use in the human world, be that for building or here, for the sculptures of Masayuke Nagare, though they seem slightly sidelined by the images Toshio settles on. Those visuals give the stone personality as the sound of the rock is made into music on the soundtrack, as if they are speaking to us. Next is Ectasis, which you will have seen much of in Funeral Parade of Roses, a wildly edited assault on the eyes with repeated images, some still, some moving: the characters watch this as part of the larger story.

Metastasis is basically a shot of a toilet, dressed up with psychedelic video effects in colour, intended to remind the viewer of Marcel Duchamp's urinal "sculpture" of some decades before, accompanied by discordant electronic music. As with many of this director's shorts, it is best suited to an art gallery installation. Expansion is more or less Ecstasis with the same video effects, and a psych-rock tune playing over it. Mona Lisa plays around with Da Vinci's painting in a moustache style, while Siki Soku Ze Ku will mean very little to you if you cannot read Japanese, consisting mostly of coloured writing and a smattering of "romantic" Indian art. Finally, Atman has a traditionally masked figure sitting in a field while the camera aggressively whirls around them. There is a danger of unintended self-parody in these later shorts as the seventies progressed, but you could say that of many artists in the experimental realm.

Author: Graeme Clark.


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