Though trans and gender diverse people have existed across all cultures since the beginning of time, we are living in an age where trans people are given an unprecedented degree of social articulation, mobility and visibility. Or so the cover of Time Magazine’s Transgender Tipping Point issue in 2014 suggests.
In truth, gender non-conformity is a largely isolating and inarticulate experience fraught with drastic economic and psychological obstacles. The stigma and shame enforced upon trans identities and trans desire mean that visibility for trans people is still often synonymous with endangerment, harm and death, especially where race, class and femininity are involved.
From Hilary Swank’s Academy Award-winning performance in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) to Transamerica (2005) to Dallas Buyers Club (2013), representations of trans people in film often circulate around a narrative of tragedy. What draws these heart-wrenching films together is that they are all highly plot driven and linear narratives of trans suffering with cisgender actors playing binary trans characters in ways that largely pander to the cis imagination of how the trans person presents and behaves.
Films that confront the incoherence of non-binary trans people, as well as our joys and our historically-embedded complexity, are far and few between. Toshiro Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is a Japanese art film that centres around gender non-conforming sex workers at a brothel who self-identify as gay boys and present as women.
The sexual geographies of the gay boys trace the social geographies of Japanese culture in the immediate aftermath of an apocalyptic event: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atomic bombs dropped by American President Harold Truman in 1945, which effectively drew World War II to a catastrophic conclusion, hold a firm but subtle role in the film. The atomic bombs broke open an economy of unfettered desire, flooding the brothels with business and giving delusional fantasies new life.
This is evident in the series of sombre public parades that punctuate the film. Gender ambiguous figures dressed in face masks carry boxes through an urban streetscape in Japan. Members of the public gather around the parade to watch, transfixed by the slow-moving spectacle. Their movement is meditative and morbid, as though the public themselves hold the psychic wounds of the bombings, which wrought long-term decimation to the Japanese landscape and population in unquantifiable and unimaginable ways. The figure at the end of the parade wears a gas mask attached to the box in their hands. The scenes are short, but their appearance demonstrates the persistence of memory; a reminder that the Apocalypse happened in Japan, and life still went on afterwards. Residues of that memory char the social conscience like toxic waste.
“All definitions of cinema have been erased,” an unnamed character in a drug circle proclaims at one stage, during one of many scenes depicting the esteemed 1950s Japanese underground world of sex workers and illicit rock and roll parties. He concludes by saying with fervour, “All the doors are now open.”
Amusingly, he misattributes the quote, and the man behind him, wearing rose-tinted circle glasses, breaks from his own trance-like state to reprimand him for it. This quote gives a sense of the atomic bombs’ impact on Japan’s sexual and social industries. Far from an entirely destructive role, the film suggests that the bombs disoriented the cultural sector, untethering conventional formalism from temporal, spatial and gendered linearity. The idea of “definitions…erased” extends to the erasure of gender conventions, as though reaching the brink of cultural mortality with an event of Apocalyptic implications instigated a new wave of transgender transgression, non-conformity and visibility. If the end of the world were really nigh, perhaps more people would live their queerest lives without fear of reproach and shame interrupting that expressivity.
This is the historical context that many critical analyses of the film fail to account for. Beyond these explicit references to war and social trauma, the cataclysmic effect of the atomic bombs is also mirrored in the pace and aesthetic construction of the film. Matsumoto trades in a currency of multiplicity and hybridity, insisting on a cinematic architecture that is always doing more than one thing at once. The motif of the rose, for example, which returns in fragments repeatedly, cannot be reduced to ecological scarcity, or femininity, or carnal desire. It is etching itself into collective memory and evading fixity simultaneously.
Through this lens, we come to understand the film’s gay boys with greatest clarity. They are schizophrenic subjects in the broadest sense of the term, operating in the realm of temporal and spatial paranoia that would later come to influence the work of Acker, Basquiat, Kubrick and Sedgwick. The application of schizophrenia as an intellectual framework denotes a dislodgement of form from convention, a scattering of signifiers without a discernible logic structure, which is evident in the film’s approach to lust, sex and the feminine body. Camera shots of transfeminine bodies can at once be quick and absurd, close-up and inchoate.
The reading of trans womanhood into their gender identities is, to a degree, complicated by their insistence on the gendered language of gay boys. While the masculinising of this language may also be a consequence of intergenerational translation, it highlights some of the historical origins of non-binary gender identities in Japan and also elsewhere in Asia. In both the gender identities of the film’s gay boys and the many people across the world who are non-binary today, including myself, there is a reluctance towards static, singular and simplified identification.
For the gay boys, of which the film presents a diverse assortment over its course, pronouns follow no consistent rule. One particularly compelling feature that complements the fictionalised narrative of the sex workers is a series of archival interviews interspersed throughout the film that document conversations with trans people in public spaces. The film crew ask tone-deaf questions to trans interviewees, some of whom do not present in conventionally feminine ways. The gay boys respond coyly, grinning smugly, laughing to themselves, and forever abdicating the binary reductionism projected upon them by the interrogative cis-het gaze. That a film shot more than 60 years ago can so intelligently reveal cultural ignorances that are still thriving today is astounding and frustrating. One of the reasons why the film’s cult status has endured is because of its ability to blend the abstract with the archival, deploying images as a means of transmitting a sense of historicity.
I attribute my own transness to a gradual untethering of subjectivity from convention, from linearity, from form. Yet, at the same time as I was coming to terms with being transgender, the Trans Tipping Point aimed to encourage people like us to no longer rely on schizophrenic and abstracted forms in order to tell stories about our truth. Given this, it is best remembered that progress does not have to be linear and new technologies of surveillance have created new means for trans people to be preyed upon. If visibility is viewed as an invitation for violence, schizophrenia may be a protective mechanism to ensure trans survival.
Bobuq Sayed is a freelance writer, multi-media artist and community organiser of the Afghan diaspora. They co-edit Archer Magazine and they are the founder of the QTPoC activist collective Colour Tongues. They are an active member of performance art collective Embittered Swish and they have performed solo work at the Emerging Writer’s Festival and the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. Their work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Black Girl Dangerous, Overland, Peril and Vice.