There’s no question that awareness of truly great movies from Japan and the rest of Asia has exploded in the past few years, but there are more than a few directors and films who remain almost totally undiscovered in the West. For at least four years I’d heard raves about Toshio Matsumoto and his film Funeral Procession of Roses, but the movie has been essentially unavailable, relegated to the status of word of mouth and blurry bootlegs. Now it has been properly reissued on DVD, and I finally understand what all the screaming has been about.
The most amazing thing about Roses is that despite being 30 years old, it feels absolutely fresh and new today—not just because of the technique, but the subject matter, approach, and frankness of the treatment make it feel totally current. If it feels this contemporary now, one can only wonder how it felt in 1969. It is also, as many other people have pointed out, one of the hippest movies ever made; every scene exudes genuine style and attitude.
Roses stars Peter (the puckish female impersonator most widely remembered for such roles as Kyoami the Fool in Kurosawa’s Ran) as Eddie, a hostess for a popular gay bar named Genet (!) in Tokyo. Eddie’s life couldn’t be better. He has little competition from the other gay boys, partly because he’s such a convincing cross-dresser (and Peter is amazingly convincing as a woman), but also because he’s well-liked. The only thorn in his side is the madam of the bar, who is seeing the same older man Eddie is dating, and who resents the fact that Eddie’s popularity could make him next in line to take the place over. He's proud that he was able to take an older but still quite desirable man away from her (even though Eddie is also lover to his filmmaker friend).
Eddie’s life consists of nights at the club followed by dizzy days of alcohol, drugs, sex, and participating in an underground movie made by several of his friends. Sometimes when he’s had a few too many pills (or joints, or hits), he slides into disturbing childhood memories that don’t make sense. His father vanished when he was young, and his only memory of his mother consists of her taking a cigarette and burning his father’s face out of a family snapshot. Eddie keeps the picture with him at all times, but seems no closer to learning who his father was despite it. It doesn't help that the older man he's involved with is also in danger of getting busted by the cops due to his sideline drug-pushing.
A movie like this resists being boiled down to a plot description, because so much of what makes the movie work the way it does has nothing to do with plot. Roses was made at a point when avant-garde or underground filmmaking techniques—nonlinear storytelling, experimental editing and camerawork—were becoming more widely used in mainstream films. The results were a wildly mixed bag. Sometimes this worked (A Clockwork Orange) and sometimes it just resulted in horrid, self-indulgent messes (Zabriskie Point). (Eventually audiences rejected this sort of thing entirely, although they’ve started to make a tentative comeback courtesy of movies like Memento.)
Roses is loaded front to back with experimental technique and is all the better for it. Watching the movie produces the same druggy, spaced-out, rootless feeling that the characters seem to all be stewing in. Matsumoto uses stop-motion animation, high- and low-speed shooting, optical effects, and many other tricks to jar the movie loose from conventional moorings. The state of mind he’s trying to produce is just as important as the story he’s trying to tell, because the two are tightly interwoven. He also uses radical editing techniques, especially when dealing with the movie-within-the-movie that Eddie is acting in, to make us feel like our own memory can’t be trusted. Because the film is so confident and assured, it never feels like a mistake or a self-indulgence.
What’s also hard to convey successfully is how many different feelings or tones the movie spans. Some scenes play like lurid melodrama, some like broad slapstick or farce, some like a surreal head picture. At one point Eddie and one of his rivals have a screaming match, and Matsumoto condenses this to a cartoon of their two heads, each popping up word-balloons at the other: “Skunk!” “Bitch!” “Hag!” When Eddie and his transvestite buddies get into a street brawl with three tough girls, the action speeds up and cheesy organ music plays. (Word has it Stanley Kubrick got many of his ideas for A Clockwork Orange from this film, and it’s easy to see a connection.) And then there are the more realistic moments, as when Eddie and his filmmaker friend go up onto the observation deck of the Tokyo Tower and muse about life, and they all seem to be part of the same logical whole.
Peter, while not being a prolific actor, has always had colorful and varied roles. He’s equally convincing playing Eddie as an adult and as a sexually confused teenager, and his performance never steps wrong. I mentioned his other performance in Ran, and he’s also appeared in The Fruits of Passion: The Story of O Continued (courtesy of Shuji Terayama, who directed the controversial Emperor Tomato Ketchup) and Kon Ichikawa’s adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s Firebird. The last time he turned up, unfortunately, was in a self-parodying role in Guinea Pig #5: Devil Woman Doctor—one of an infamous series of direct-to-video gore movies that scared more than a few impressionable people into thinking they were genuine snuff films.
Not long before seeing Roses I had suffered through another movie that had tried to cover much of the same territory (sexual identity) in a similar way (quasi-underground filmmaking techniques): Myra Breckinridge. That movie was as insufferable and unfunny as Roses was engrossing and hilarious. Why did Roses work for me where Myra didn’t? Part of it, I think, was that Myra was made by someone who had merely slummed his territory, while Roses was made by people who had at least to a degree lived it, or understood it well enough from the inside out not to condescend to it. It was also made by someone who understood how to use his techniques to enhance his film rather than simply muddle it.
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