This week on TCM Underground, we travel to the 1950s and 1960s in Japan and get treated to a double feature that goes against the norm and invites us to a frank discussion on sexuality. Both films go into explicit detail on things that, in previous years, especially in American films, were only merely hinted at.
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)
It’s difficult to write a straightforward review for a movie like Funeral Parade of Roses because it’s not a straightforward movie. The plot is described as a retelling of Oedipus Rex, and while that’s technically true, it’s not entirely accurate. Damned if I can think of a better way to sum up the film in a quick synopsis, though. It retells the story, replete with incest and murder, but is also a film within a film–and which is the reality and which is the film, becomes obscured. Reality itself is up for debate.
Pîtâ stars as Eddie, a self-described “Gay Boy”, someone who doesn’t think of themselves as either man or woman, their gender fluid and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Eddie sometimes addresses the camera directly (as do other “Gay Boys” that populate the film) and explains that they’re not up to the task of defining the entire spectrum of sexuality, that they only know how they themselves feel about love, sex and gender. At the time this movie came out, especially because it appears to be so nonjudgmental, I can only imagine audiences shitting a collective chicken.
A film like Funeral Parade of Roses reminds me, perhaps not surprisingly, of something made by David Lynch. Of course, I mean this as a high complement. Toshio Matsumoto isn’t making a movie just to be weird or kooky or avant-garde, that’s just the way his story is best told. Like David Lynch, his movies aren’t weird just for the sake of being weird, they’re sincere–and, of course, bizarre. How bizarre? Funeral Parade of Roses can be summed up thusly, in terms of what to expect when you’re going in: Eddie tells their mother that they will always be there for her, at which point the mother begins laughing maniacally for a sustained period of time and the scene is interjected with a shot of half a dozen men standing in a line, completely nude, seen from the back, and one of them has a flower sticking out of his ass. That’s the kind of film Funeral Parade of Roses is.
Funeral Parade of Roses is a must-see for any serious follower of cinema if only for its place in the world of art-house film. Part of the Japanese New Wave movement (such as Branded to Kill, which is fantastic), it wears its French, Godard-esque influences on its sleeve–and avant-garde classics like the slashing of the eye straight out of Un Chien Andalou–and then went on to be a huge influence itself on Stanley Kubrick when he was filming A Clockwork Orange. Whether or not you derive any actual enjoyment from the movie is just a happy side-effect if you do.
The movie is full of some wonderful moments, so I’m definitely glad I saw it. My tolerance for the avant-garde isn’t that high, so I don’t necessary feel like the most qualified person to be reviewing it, but I can certainly say I appreciate it, that is to say I respect it more than I actually enjoyed it. There is a quick scene with a cemetery that is literally sinking, and headstones are half-covered in a swampy mess of water and moss, and it’s beautiful shot. There’s also the “Warhol party” scene that every film of this era needed to have, for whatever reason, that has some candid, possibly-real interviews regarding drug use.
Crazed Fruit (1956)
Crazed Fruit is like the Less Than Zero of 1950s Japan. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s characters, the youth of this film, living in a postwar Japan, are bored, have too much, are obsessed with sex and find ways to get themselves into trouble or get themselves killed. Crazed Fruit helped create the “Sun Tribe” genre of films, the Japanese equivalent of American films like Rebel Without a Cause or The Wild One.
Haruji (Masahiko Tsugawa) and Natsuhisa (Yujiro Ishihara) are two brothers in love with the same girl. Eri (Mie Kitahara) is being blackmailed into having sex with Natsuhisa because he found out the girl is married, without love, to an older American. Eri says that Haruji is the kind of person she wished she’d met and married, so she’s having all the fun with him that she’d wished she’d had before getting married.
Natsuhisa thinks she’s bad for his brother, but good for him, so he tries his best to break them apart and trick her into being with him. She doesn’t necessarily hate Natsuhisa, but she doesn’t love him, and she’s been with a lot of people like him. He’s nothing special to her, and knowing that drives him insane.
No one in Crazed Fruit is altruistic. Everyone’s at least a little bit shitty. Haruji is like the prototypical “nice guy.” Because he’s not outwardly sexual, he feels like he’s entitled to be rewarded with Eri’s affections. At one point, feeling jealous, he rips her from a party, yanking on her arm and practically drags her outside. And in the end, his jealousy explodes into unexpected violence. No one comes off looking good here.
The seaside, beach town setting works for this melodrama. The love quadrangle is undercut with ukuleles, water skiing and tiki drinks. It’s beautiful to look at. It reminds me of if one of those corny “beach blanket” movies had a darker id, if it wanted to buck traditions and go somewhere wholly unexpected.
Kō Nakahira has a knack for storytelling without having to rely on dialogue. There’s a moment where Haruji and Eri are laying on a rock, sunbathing after a swim, and we can sense their mutual attraction for each other. His and her breath both become rapid. He fumbles with his hand to reach for hers, but stops short.
I always enjoy these kinds of tragic love stories, these over-the-top melodramas where young people are driven mad with their unrequited desire. They range drastically in quality, and Crazed Fruit is one of the better ones. Sometimes it’s best to view it through a historical lens, seeing how ahead of its time it was.
Next Week: Next week is Dudes and Border Radio, which I’ve already reviewed, so I’ve got the week off!