Director Tominaga Masanori’s biopic on the life of underground publisher Akira Suei, Dynamite Graffiti, had its North American premiere at NYAFF last Friday night, June 29. The film, starring Emoto Tasuku as Akira Suei, attempts to shed some light on the notorious adult magazine editor and manga artist’s life, who made a name for himself by pushing the boundaries of “good taste” in the ‘80s. With a film that borrows heavily from American clichés for the genre, Tominaga Masanori attempts to tell a unique story using this pre-established framework, while struggling to find a satisfying arc and voice for its subject.

The film’s fractured narrative, taken from autobiographical essays by Akira Suei, tackles how his life and outlook on sex was forever changed by his mother’s suicide. Suffering with tuberculosis and longing to be loved in a time when those with the disease were ostracized, Suei’s mother began an affair with the son of their neighbor. Shortly after her husband discovers this infidelity, she commits suicide by using the dynamite her husband had taken from his job and blowing up herself and her lover. This macabre event forever colored her son’s life, relationships, and career. After that foundation is laid out we witness Suei start out his adult life as a factory worker, then attending night school to be a graphic designer in an attempt to find a way to work through that event he seems to keep coming back to. Oddly enough Suei finally finds that outlet for expression working in Japan’s quirky sex industry making signs for hostess bars.

It’s a strange journey filled with infidelity, self discovery, and navigating Japan’s bizarre obscenity laws. All the magazines founded by Suei featured thoughtful meditations on subculture by writers who would go on to influence Japan, but also with a healthy dose of nudity. In its heyday “Shashin Jidai” (“Photo Age”) alone sold roughly about 350,000 copies a month. The writing is what first gains interest by the authorities, who later take issue with the photography in the magazine. At the time, it was forbidden in Japan to show a woman’s pubic hair and any kind of penetrations. So this was supposed to be censored out, but Suei’s magazines would regularly “forget” to do this, which only helped make his magazine sell out issue after issue. Suei would then be picked up by the police and would have to explain himself and apologize for these infractions, which slowly begin to build up against the editor.

Dynamite Graffiti views the Japanese porn industry with a playful innocence reminiscent of Boogie Nights as it depicts a burgeoning industry evolving and finding its way. These more comedic moments are intertwined with more serious glimpses into the life of our subject, which don’t illicit much by the way of compassion or empathy as we watch him treat the women in his life horribly. Witnessing Suei commit adultery, stalk his employees, and treat his wife and the women with whom he has relationships with a strange ambivalence makes it hard to find any kind of redemption in him as a character. While it’s an outstanding performance by Emoto Tasuku, in the role of Akira, it’s director Tominaga Masanori who struggles with what kind of narrative is he trying to present here. The film fails to make a strong case for its protagonist, instead making him appear simply as an eccentric entrepreneur who used his power and mother’s suicide as an excuse to mistreat women.

Dynamite Graffiti still is worth a watch for its fascinating and comedic look at Japan’s porn industry in the 1980s alone. But for a biopic the film doesn’t dig too deep with its protagonist, painting a rather superficial portrait of someone who should have been fertile ground for this kind of treatment. The film’s third act is where the character arc seems to break down and crumble as it’s not completely clear what is driving Akira’s eccentric behavior as he goes off the deep end, throwing change in the streets and randomly walking around town playing a saxophone. It’s here the film simply runs out of steam before it’s supposed to give a conclusion to the story that feels rather tacked on after the fact. While Dynamite Graffiti delivers on the history surrounding Akira, it fails to shed any real light on its subject to redeem him and help us better understand the man behind the myth.

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