Although it’s Pride Month, this month’s Pride celebrations have felt less like the party that the month has often been associated with in recent years as a celebration of queer identity. Now more than ever, especially as worldwide protests on the topic of police brutality have helped bring about a worldwide re-evaluation of systemic racism and the role of policing, there’s a strong reminder of the origins of Pride over 50 years ago. Pride came about as a result of the Stonewall Riots led by black and brown people of color who faced attacks for their identity from all front. Just as Pride began with the Stonewall Riots and LGBTQ+ people of color, the Black Lives Matter movement was pioneered by queer black women seeking a radical change to the system we live in search for equality for all.
Even as the discussion of LGBTQ+ rights differs from country to country, a common trend between them is the intrinsic link between queer identity and anti-establishment existence that come hand in hand with their existence opposite to heteronormativity.
It’s this idea I want to focus on during this entry of Japanese Film Insight. LGBTQ+ history in Japan is radically different from the more-widely understood history of LGBTQ+ liberation in the West. I want to discuss LGBTQ+ history in Japan and its relationship to early Japanese cinematic history, the way that queerness is often written out of stories, and more.
Once again, with film schedules still far from back to normal and to further focus on the topic at hand, no future film focus will feature in this week’s column. Also please note that this article will focus solely on early LGBTQ+ portrayals in Japanese society, and not more modern cinematic examples.
LGBTQ+ Identity in Early Japanese Cinema
To first understand LGBTQ+ representation in Japanese cinema, you need to understand the history of queer identity within Japan. This is an incredibly interesting topic in its own right that I thoroughly recommend further reading beyond the brief introduction I can provide here.
To look at the history of pre-Meiji Japan uncovers many examples of homosexual and genderqueer practices throughout Japanese society. In the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) male-male sexual relationships within military classes such as the samurai and higher classes not only well-documented but the norm for those who existed within these higher echelons of Japanese society.
When it comes to the stage and entertainment arenas, this sort of non-heteronormative expression was common, as the lack of women in all-male kabuki theater brought with it the role of the onnagata. The onnagata’s role was to role-play the female characters within a play, but the number of onnagata performers meant that only the best would perform on stage. To immerse into roles, many, including those who didn’t perform on stage, would live as women off-stage as well. Many onnagata would engage in same- and opposite-sex sexual relationships and prostitution, even if many eventually married female partners.
Homosexual and gender-queer expression was common before the Meiji Restoration. However, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought with it attempts to ‘democratize’ and ‘modernize’ Japan upon Western ideals, with Western views on sex and gender being imported as well. The prostitution that often associated itself with the upper-class male-male relationships and off-stage presence of the onnagata was outlawed and the desire to ‘civilize’ made LGBTQ+ expression ‘wrong’. Those who expressed same-sex desires were, as a result, outcast and forced underground.
While there’s a lot more to discuss regarding early LGBTQ+ history in Japan, what this should make clear is the role of performance within LGBTQ+ expression throughout Japanese history. Whether through prostitution or their explicit roles on the stage, it’s impossible to separate queer expression from the spheres of performance and entertainment.
This link between the LGBTQ+ community and entertainment has an impact on early Japanese cinema. While alternative gender expression outside of the stage decreased, onnagata performers continued to exist within kabuki theater, and without a tradition of women on stage films created in the early infancy of cinema before the 1920s saw onnagata often playing the role of female characters. Many transferred to effeminate male characters as more women took roles in the industry.
In turn, the media has been used as an avenue for the expression of LGBTQ+ identity, whether through sexological discourse in the 1920s and the post-war perverse magazines that circulated in gay bars that brought fetish, homosexual and transgender communities visibility within their community and a central area to come together. It was through the sense of community built up within these communities and the occasional mainstream coverage that came from incidents such as the French transgender cabaret troupes Le Carrousel’s performances in Japan that brought them recognition, within the entertainment arena.
Even if the mainstream coverage cited here mostly existed for cis-gendered heterosexual mainstream audiences to bemuse at the gei bois (effeminate gay male crossdressers) or blue boys (male-to-female transgender performers, particularly those who had surgery) that framed them as outsiders to society, it did open up basic discussions that particularly blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Much of the media discussion on LGBTQ+ identity at this early-postwar period occurred from grassroots activism and community building, while cinema floundered. Outside of those early examples of onnagata appearing in early Japanese cinema, Japanese cinema often took influence from the Meiji-introduced ideals of heteronormativity even in period works such as samurai films, where the explicit homosexual practices of samurai of the era were mostly reduced to, at most, a sanitized, Westernised ideal that erased these practices.
It’s therefore difficult to cast an eye away from period films and the works of Akira Kurosawa’s filmmaking in this respect. His films are deservedly regarded as classics and remain idolized as some of the best examples of filmmaking craft around the world for good reason. As a creator whose work had a huge influence throughout the industry and particular on period works and how the past was viewed within cinema, his work warrants discussion
His work is not absent of historical accuracy, per se, as many areas of these films are true to history, and there are ways to tell historical stories well without necessarily resorting to historical accuracy, but the refusal to acknowledge the range of sexualities present within samurai practice of the time harms the claim films like Seven Samurai are representative of samurai of the period. It’s not to suggest the film is bad, but the refusal for any explicit representation of queer expression within these films fails to represent the reality of the era.
Scenes in Seven Samurai such as the one where Shino, one of the women in the village at the center of the movie, needs to cut her hair to avoid the samurai’s advances when short hair as an expression of male identity was a Meiji-era fashion and it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything regardless for gay samurai, the compulsory heterosexuality Westernizes the work and the genre as a whole.
When even historical works reduced the explicit homosexual practices of the samurai to at most the homosocial respectful bonds between master and student, you find within the historical works a representation of early queer cinema prior to the 1970s and 1980s. Queer expression was mostly marginalized even in works exploring periods of history such practices were openly occurring, as the influence of Meiji-era modernization changed the course for LGBTQ+ expression.
It marginalized and turned queer expression into an expression of self relegated to the outskirts of society. Queerness became anti-establishment and a rebellious image against the system, perverse and in opposition to societal norms. While other forms of media brought queer communities together in solidarity with these ideas, it was far less prominent in the film industry. One of the most prominent and strongest early Japanese films about explicit queer identity took the link between queer identity and anti-establishment sentiment to create an avant-garde masterpiece that stands as one of the best examples of queer cinema around the world, even today…
Film Flashback: Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
Arguments regularly made against the often more sexual nature of queer cinema in any country is that the regular, at-times explicit central idea of sex at the center of these works is crass and unnecessary. This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. LGBTQ+ existence is often derided and looked down upon due to sexual attraction and gender, which causes the suppression of sexual and gender identity to appeal and the ostracism and danger that comes from the expression of it. Whereas heterosexual cinema can exist in a place where sex is secondary and more of a stepping stone within a relationship, even when sex isn’t on screen, the society the characters exist within makes it impossible to escape its presence.
It’s not unnecessary. It’s a requirement.
This is why opening Funeral Parade of Roses on a passionate scene of love that plays itself straight until the homoerotic nature of the act we just saw is revealed, makes sense. This opening scene is used to place us into the life of our gender-queer protagonist Eddie, played by real-life gei boi Peter, emphasizing the sexual nature of their existence and the realities of how performing for the service of others is one of the few routes to acceptance at this time. Through this betrayal of expectations, the deep-rooted nature of sex at the heart of queer identity is established immediately.
This was a radical scene at a radical time in Japanese history, a fact embraced by director Toshio Matsumoto regularly through the production of Funeral Parade of Roses. Over the next 105 minutes, this avant-garde movie experience places audiences within the gay scene of Japan during the height of cultural unrest as we follow the nonlinear story of Eddie and others within the gay bar culture of the 1960s in this pseudo-documentary look at queer culture during a period of revolution. While a rough plot involving Eddie’s affair with the owner of the gay bar he works for that brings upon them the wrath of the owner’s lover, co-worker Leda, the main purpose of the film is to place us within the culture of the time and to help us understand the LGBTQ+ community of Japan through emotive imagery and art-house flair.
Speaking of this, Funeral Parade of Roses embraces the abstract and non-linear in abundance to place us within the mindset of our main cast. This film is rough, messy, almost-impenetrable in places without a second or third viewing, as the use of the abstract and emotive takes precedence over mainstream linear storytelling techniques. Matching with the experimental tone of many of Matsumoto’s previous experimental short films, this is a movie which seeks to define itself beyond the confines of film through the use of film-within-a-film real-life documentary interviews conducted on set with the cast and strangers, essay-like discussions of underground culture and strong, provocative imagery.
The use of these techniques plays into the style Matsumoto developed until this point, but its use here feels deliberate and perfect for the work discussed. By challenging cinematic traditions it places the movie outside of the mainstream and stands it alongside the community at the center who similarly are outcast. Matsumoto noted in an interview for the UK Masters of Cinema DVD release in 2006 for Eureka Video that he sought out those from within the LGBTQ community to star in the film alongside more seasoned actors to help drive this look at the ‘unique world of gay culture’ of the time.
There’s more to it than that, however. This film frequently references the mass protests going on in Japan at the time of this movie’s production and stands the queer community in solidarity with these protests in opposition to structures of power and hierarchical ideologies that dominated Japanese society. Multiple scenes within the film were unplanned shoots where Matsumoto and Peter wandered upon street protests and experimental art performances (which further entangles the film in the space between fiction and reality), and the nature of opposition permeates within every aspect of the film. Just as the protests of the 1960s sought to achieve, this film seeks to rip a hole and cast a light on what many are otherwise happy to overlook.
Beyond this, the film also seeks to not just place an inquisitive eye on the community but the wider structural and societal forces that act as the invisible hand of influence on their representation. Funeral Parade of Roses actively explores the performative and constructed nature of gender whether through the androgyny and ambiguity of sex within the context of the film, the human body or even humor in the form of female-coded characters in the men’s restroom, while using the limitless nature of visual expression and experimentation within the film to argue for its limitations and the limits people have in truly conveying their deepest thoughts to one another.
What makes Funeral Parade of Roses so successful as a piece of early explicitly-LGBTQ+ cinema is the way it plays into this alternative aspect of queerness in the cinema I discussed earlier. Queerness in early post-war Japan was often hidden outside of the communities themselves, and even in cinema, discussing historical events involving openly-homosexual people throughout cinema, their non-heteronormativity was downplayed to homosocial respect or outright removed from those discussions. It placed queerness as an outcast, a role this movie runs with.
Even today, over 50 years on, Funeral Parade of Roses feels ahead of its time in the ways it expands the language of cinema and challenges the status quo and conceptions of queer identity. It stands as an art-house masterpiece and a required piece of viewing for anyone interested not just in LGBTQ+ cinema but Japanese cinema and the medium of film more broadly.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!