Dynamite Graffiti (Japan, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Adult magazines are big business worldwide, especially in Japan where it is still possible to walk into some convenience stores and see them on open display, although in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics this is getting cleaned up. Masanori Tominaga’s biopic Dynamite Graffiti tells the history of raunchy magazine mogul Akira Suei, starting from childhood to the peak of his infamy in the 1980s when his publications had a circulation of over 300,000 copies a month and he publicly challenged censors with his magazine’s content. Tominaga aims big and scores some smiles with behind-the-scenes looks at the smut trade but the scale of his script’s ambitions in trying to capture changing times delivers a cast of characters who are little more than cyphers while Suei remains a joker.

The film starts with a skeptical and prurient police detective named Morohashi (a hilariously deadpan Yutaka Matsushige) leafing through pages of Shashin Jidai (Photograph Age) seeing images of fornicating, fondling, and posing people. Morohashi flags up problems. Pubic hair is visible. Penetration is obvious. Smut. Obscenity, etc. Sat to his side is the magazine’s founder and editor, Akira Suei (Tokio Emoto), snickering away whilst trying to dodge censorship with feigned ignorance. Morohashi looks at the man, “Do you think this is art or something?” Suei looks stunned and replies, “Not at all. Definitely not art.”

Adapting Suei’s autobiographical essays, Morinaga’s film shows that a one point Suei did have pretensions to be an artist but changed thanks to the vicissitudes of having to make a living. Suei is a man breaking through the class-boundaries of post-war Japan as a boy from a rural mining village in Okayama who manages to make it to the design colleges and editorial rooms of Tokyo by way of the factories of Osaka and Kawasaki during the economic miracle of the 1950s and 60s. As he ascends to the chattering classes, his fashion sense changes and so do his ethics as he goes from naively spouting high ideals about communicating emotions through art to just making money to support mistresses and play the stock market in the 80s. On a more technical level, the film stock matches the ages so it mimics periods along with set-design and costumes to show the changes.

The majority of the time is centered on the 70s and 80s when Suei launched Weekend Super, originally envisioned as a movie mag that balanced porn and subculture, and Shashin Jidai which was photography, subculture and… yes, porn. The film comes to life as the helter-skelter world of pulling together the racy content is shown to the audience and the police raid offices and investigate panties. We see a motley bunch of intellectuals, gravure idols, and shady “talent scouts” help Suei round-up women through dubious methods such as claiming their work is “art”, argue over the layout of the magazine in cluttered offices, perform the shoots at awful locations, and run the phone sex lines using stationary like sellotape for sound-effects. The reality is both mundane for all involved and played for laughs as people deal with outrageous situations. Throughout this, Suei maintains creative control and his skill is undeniable as he leaves his imprint whilst also managing to work with influential photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki who was recently accused of exploitation by a model, something which is impossible to forget while watching the film.

The business side of things is where there is a sense of a fun attitude to sex and also the troubling treatment of women as Tominaga takes a “have his cake and eating it” approach. The jokes are there but he makes the link between the machine-part factories Suei graduated from to the flesh factories of orgies and sexy photo shoots but doesn’t offer any profound analysis. Women are “scouted” into the work, paraded on screen and given a line before they are forgotten about with no attempt to understand who they are. It seems they have no real impact on the main character except as steps Suei uses to ascend to the top. Aside from Suie’s first girlfriend Makiko (Atsuko Maeda) and the tragic fallen woman Fueko (Toko Miura), whose story is worth a film in itself, there are no other strong women in play apart from Suei’s mother Tomiko (Machiko Ono) who blew herself and her lover up with dynamite. Her death haunts Suei but how it informs his actions is unclear other than it makes him seek a true form of expression through art and gives him a self-destructive impulse he fears during his career.

As the decades slip by, side characters enter and leave but they are underwritten so tragedies happen to them but there hardly seems to be any impact on our Suei who impishly manages to survive by using others. The personal and the professional clash but the lack of detail in characters prevents the film from making dramatic hooks out of these moments. Despite this, Suei’s character, in the hands of Emoto, is fun to watch as he mischievously bounces from scene to scene. He holds the film together as we get is a portrait of an entrepreneurial man making the most of the changing times, creating trends and thumbing his nose at prurient authorities.

Dynamite Graffiti is showing on June 29 at the New York Asian Film Festival.