Oedipus Rex Redux


“Japan never considers time together as time wasted. Rather, it is time invested.” 
― Donald Richie / A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan


I have long been an avid fan of Japanese cinema, from the silent films of Ozu to the colorful brashness of Kitano…and everything in between.  The quiet stillness of Naruse goes hand in hand with the measured lunacy of Obayashi, often within the same studio.  The Japanese cinema mixes so many styles, moods, and subjects (mainly about their own socially political culture) and conjures up films with an otherworldly, yet familiar landscape.  There is nothing taboo, nothing too extreme (think Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses) that Japanese directors will present to audiences.  Not all stories are told with a Japanese seriousness, for many of these films have humor (both dark and light) and a sense of experimental fun.  A well known epic is Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which encompasses a multitude of stories brilliantly interwoven with high drama and streetwise humor.  One of my very favorite Japanese films is Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story, which simply concerns an elderly couple facing changing times and indifferent older children with busy lives of their own.  It is filled with such life and love with each measured nuance Ozu adds to his humanist universal story.  I watch it at least once a year.

“…count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.” 
― Sophocles / Oedipus Rex

In 1969, Japan was undergoing a series of university closures due to student uprisings across the country in protest sentiments against the Vietnam War and the Security Treaty with the United States.  The world over had revolutions during this year such as the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protests in the United States, the Cultural Revolution in China, Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia,  and student/worker uprisings in both France and Germany.  The students in Japan wore white hard hats and armed themselves with wooden 2X4’s to fend off the lightly armed police at that time.  This movement was organized into a nationwide group known as the  Zengakuren, which surged in membership in the late sixties due to the rapid economic boon in Japan lending itself more and more to “reform” its ties politically and socially to the United States and the world over.

It is within this societal climate that video artist and filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto (1932 – 2017) envisioned his cinematic shattering of taboo’s with Funeral Parade Of Roses.  Shot in gorgeous black and white, Matsumoto’s experimental rendering of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is turned upside down in modern day Tokyo wherein the story now consists of a boy who instead murders his mother and sleeps with his father. Funeral Parade Of Roses mixes both documentary, avant garde stylistic choices, humor, violence, along with a heavy dose of melodrama (hence the love triangle of two gay men vying for the affections of the club’s male owner) for good measure.  This strange mix yields such an interesting piece of modern Japanese history which displays the rising openly gay culture amidst the political violence on the streets.  There is no other film in recent memory that both attacks and heralds such a wide variety of subcultures and movements, sometimes within the very same shot.


Funeral Parade Of Roses has been largely unseen in the United States since it’s official release in 1970.  My only knowledge of its existence was an interview I read with director Stanley Kubrick (2001:A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove) who listed this film as highly influential in his conception of A Clockwork Orange.  It is not hard to see how true that statement was with the choice of music, high speed photography, and the depiction of violence (never glorifying, but showing its futility and ugliness) that mirrors what Matsumoto accomplished with his film.  It is both bold and ridiculous at times in those scenes of rampant drug use, violent confrontation, sexual conquest, and the persona (masks) these young men inhabit on a daily basis.  Working at the aptly named hangout Club Genet (named after the famed and openly gay French thief/writer/political activist Jean Genet), the underground transgender love triangle houses two men, the tragically beautiful Eddie and the aging transvestite Leda, who are both heavily invested in Genet’s owner Gonda.  The film consistently breaks the fourth wall with short interviews with these young men about their sexuality and their hopes and fears.  It is experimental, but somehow rings true to what Matsumoto is trying to accomplish with this film.  I was caught off guard at first by this conglomerate of many styles and moods, but soon got caught up with the vision presented.  As with any love triangle (and one based on Oedipus Rex, mind you), it cannot end well.  The violence is shocking and lingers long with you after the film ends.

Matsumoto neither condones nor praises the subjects he raises.  He merely presents a  little seen section of modern Japanese society through an artist’s eye.  Sometimes, it is not the ideas on screen that matter…it is the way it is perceived and presented to an audience that truly matters.  Funeral Parade Of Roses aims for the cosmos with its studied microcosm of Japanese cultural platitudes with some success and a lot of daring.  It is indeed a statement on the times (especially the student movement in the streets complete with those bloodied hard hats and riots) and the ever expanding cinematic boundaries, but at its very center stands Eddie and his truly tragic story.  Without Eddie, this film would struggle to find its heart and soul.  Eddie encompasses every human’s search for identity and acceptance with others.  The wearing of masks soon becomes tiresome and futile in the face of truth.  Eddie and his lover/father Gondo, unknowingly tear off their masks and can no longer play their parts to epic tragic consequences.

“When a boy…discovers that he is more given into introspection and consciousness of self than other boys his age, he easily falls into the error of believing it is because he is more mature than they. This was certainly a mistake in my case. Rather, it was because the other boys had no such need of understanding themselves as I had: they could be their natural selves, whereas I was to play a part, a fact that would require considerable understanding and study.”    Yukio Mishima / Confessions Of A Mask


The newly restored Funeral Parade Of Roses has been playing at selected art house theaters nationwide and will hopefully be available soon for streaming to a wider and much appreciative cinema loving audience.  This is an interesting time piece of cinema (queer cinema, that is) and it richly deserves some study and attention.  It only adds to the long and rich tapestry of Japanese cinema.

Funeral Parade Of Roses [1969]   Toshio Matsumoto, writer/director  1hr 47min





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