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You Need to See Late Filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto’s Dizzying Debut Feature

In no particular order, Funeral Parade of Roses features the following: drug-fueled bacchanals, girl gang brawls, underground drag queen bars, flooded graveyards, a character who intentionally blinds themselves, an incestuous love triangle, and a line of naked individuals, one of whom has a rose lodged in between their butt cheeks. To divulge any more details would both shortchange prospective viewers and be impossible. The oddities are endless. Bursting at the seams with originality, the Japanese New Wave staple comes from the late writer/director Toshio Matsumoto, who passed at away last month. He was 85.

Widely regarded as a trailblazing auteur, Matsumoto was a key pioneer in Japanese experimental cinema during the 1960s. Bold, provocative, and daring, he was entranced by the potential of moving images. What they were then, and what they could be in the future. As a result, Matsumoto—a video artist, film theoretician, essayist—blended his past professions into moviemaking.

Alongside contemporaries like Yoshishige Yoshida, Nagisa Oshima, and Genpei Akasegawa, the Nagoya-born filmic savant was a man of amalgamations. The cinema of Toshio Matsumoto is never one thing; it’s everything. It obfuscates the traditional lines between format, genre, and style. Not to alienate, but to enlighten, to push the boundaries, to see what’s possible. In turn, you frequently receive something that’s dizzyingly singular and strange. Fiction, documentary, journalism, Brechtian film-within-a-film asides, and musical interludes, all lucidly presented by a man who spent his days doing what he loves the most.

Culturally, Matsumoto was Japan’s response to the “pop art” wave spearheaded by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann. Although he admits to being “stimulated” by the American movement, Matsumoto rejected categorizations. “I have never thought of myself as a pop artist,” he said in an interview from 2015, “and have never been called a pop artist.”

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That said, it’s unlikely Matsumoto would’ve consistently secured traditional funding for his untraditional art, pop or otherwise. So how did he manage to direct four features and countless shorts? Through ATG (or Art Theater Guild), an independent production and distribution company whose sole interest was to support and cultivate avant-garde cinema in Japan. It was envisioned as an incubator for trailblazing, political creators who wanted to operate outside of the mainstream. Moreover, ATG had its own chain of cinemas and a policy of giving each feature a one-month trial run (see: utopia). As if Paramount joined forces with A24 and Magnolia to champion voices that matter.

On the heels of Funeral Parade of Roses’s theatrical release in 1969, Matsumoto was one of those rarified voices Japanese audiences listened to and cared about. Re-watching this directorial debut, there’s something vital (and modern) about the loose adaptation of Oedipus Rex. Set in the seedy underbelly of Tokyo, Matsumoto focuses on the interiors of Bar Genet—a haven for gay counterculture. At the center is Eddie/Peter (Shinnosuke Ikehata), a young hostess with a troubled past. Eddie is confident, sexual, and enraptured by her boss, Gonda (played by Akira Kurosawa regular Yoshio Tsuchiya). By the time we enter their lives, infidelity is part of the equation. Gonda is married to reigning drag queen Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), who quickly catches wind of the clandestine affair.

Matsumoto is less concerned with the erupting love triangle than he is with the world around them. Presented in breathtaking black-and-white by cinematographer Tatsuo Suzuki, Funeral is a love letter to a world foreign to many both in 1969 and 2017. It offers an unabashedly candid portrait of (male) homoeroticism and transvestism—a community in their natural habitat.

Throughout, Matsumoto sporadically cuts to interviews the actors (or, possibly, the characters themselves—the division between fiction and nonfiction is unintelligible). These interspersed vignettes are designed to be equally playful and insightful. “Why did you become a gay boy?” asks our director. “Because I wanted to be a girl. I just like it.” Other interactions reveal themselves to be more tender, vulnerable. Sometimes the movie simply revels in the “aesthetics of cruelty and perversion,” a line that found itself on initial promo poster.

For nearly half a century, Funeral has barely been screened Stateside. Reasons always vary, of course. Albeit Stanley Kubrick citing the film as a source of inspiration behind A Clockwork Orange, it didn’t make much of a dent when it played in New York City in 1973. It didn’t help that Vincent Canby in the New York Times deemed it a “mopey soap opera by someone who has seen too many better movies.” With some distance and perspective, it’s clear Canby’s initial analysis was a bit of a misreading. (How could one watch too many better movies?)

Matsumoto’s masterpiece may be unhinged and frenetic, but it’s not mopey or soapy. After years of tireless, meticulous work, the tight-knit team at Cinelicious—with support from the Cinefamily—has restored Funeral Parade of Roses in 4k from the original 35mm negative. Better yet, the restoration is astounding. Each sequence—each set piece—is a sight to behold. It doesn’t alter the artistry; it enhances it. The vision remains intact. Even in death, they’ve given new life to the work of Toshio Matsumoto.

Follow Sam Fragoso on Twitter.

Funeral Parade of Roses will screen throughout the summer, beginning on June 2 in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily and June 9 in NYC at the Quad Cinema.

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