In 1980s Japan, Akira Suei was part Hugh Hefner and part Larry Flynt. His skin magazine Photo Age had “real” “counter-culture” articles, as well as the other stuff. However, Suei doesn’t seem to be especially interested in either kind of reading material. This just seems to be what he does in Masanori Tominaga’s Dynamite Graffiti (trailer here), which screens as the opening night selection of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.
Based on Suei’s autobiographical writings, Dynamite tells his story mostly chronologically, but through the prism of his mother’s tragic suicide. She and her lover were shunned by their provincial mining town because they had both been institutionalized for tuberculosis. After carrying on a scandalously passionate affair, they decided to blow themselves to smithereens with dynamite. For the rest of the film, Suei lives in her shadow as the “son of the woman who…” It is never clear what he makes of his mother or her suicide, but she is by far the film’s most sympathetic character.
Presumably, the incident rather disturbs his father as well. Nevertheless, they are stuck together for a while. They live hand-to-mouth, but somehow, Suei manages to enroll in graphic design courses for a few semesters. He paints some sandwich boards for a strip club and follows where that work takes him.
The film was probably built around the early scenes in which the guileless acting Suei tries to placate the sour-faced Puritanical police captain inspecting the latest issue of Photo Age like it is a bit of smelliness stuck on his shoe. These recurring gags are absurdly funny, but they just seem to trail off without resolution, like a SNL skit.
For all its excesses, The People vs. Larry Flint clearly suggests its central character really believed in the 1st Amendment and truly enjoyed naughty pictures. In contrast, Suei doesn’t seem to have any real passions. He just drifts through the episodic film, treating his long-suffering wife dismissively and recklessly pursuing a not-particularly-interested co-worker. By the way, the behavior depicted in this film definitely constitutes sexual harassment—just for the record. There’s the counter-culture’s values in action.
It is just baffling what Tominaga expected viewers to take away from all this. Tasuku Emoto is often quite droll as Suei, but it is a performance designed to be cold and inscrutable. Machiko Ono is absolutely heartbreaking as the tragic mother, as is Toko Miura, playing the lover, whose body and spirit Suei literally breaks. Fans will also be amused to see jazz musician Naruyoshi Kikuchi portraying in/famous photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Kikuchi also penned the distinctively angular, but still swinging score, which is probably what Dynamite will be primarily remembered for years from now.
Dynamite Graffiti is problematic in many ways, but its subject matter is sure to appeal cult movie fans. It has the same kind of colorful period details that elevated Boogie Nights, but it never even invites viewers to make an emotional investment. There are moments of outrageous ribald comedy, but it really just convinces us pornographers are just obnoxious jerkweeds. Dynamite Graffiti isn’t recommended as a film, but it will probably be demonized by the virtue-signalers any second now, so if you want to know what it is really like before the Pavlovian dogs tear into it, check it out this Friday (6/29), as the opening night film of this year’s NYAFF.