Masanori Tominaga, known from his documentary The Echo of Astro Boy’s Footsteps (2011) about Matsuo Ohno and narratives like Pandora’s Box (2009), which was based on a story written by Osamu Dazai, returns to the silver screen with a biopic about Akira Suei, Japan’s famous erotic-magazine editor. Even though the erotic images – including the work of Nobuyoshi Araki – were the main attraction of New Self, Weekend Super, and Shashin Jidai, these magazines also featured articles about various underground cultural phenomena and the work of distinguished writers like Genpei Akasegawa and Shigesato Itio. Now, With Tominaga’s adaptation of Suei’s biographical essay “Suteki na Dainamaito Sukyandaru” (1982), we finally get a chance to explore the life of one of the most controversial editors of the eighties (General-Note 1, General-Note 2).
It took only one explosion to radically change the subjective trajectory of Suei (Tasuku Emoto): The particular explosion – of desire – that bombarded his mother Tomiko (Machiko Ono) and her lover, Reiji (Ryuya Wakaba), to the afterlife. After graduating from high school, Suei decides to leave his hometown and work in a factory in the city.
Due to the heavy workload and the abuse of seniors in factories, Suei eventually seeks a way out and finds his escape in a night course to become a designer. Supported by his girlfriend and future wife Makiko (Atsuko Maeda), Suei completes the course and finds work as a designer. While things starts off well – he befriends Chikamatsu (Kazunobu Mineta) – Suei quickly realizes that there is no place for self-expression. Eventually, he starts to draw banners for various establishments in the red light district.
While Dynamite Graffiti is told in a chronological way, there are two exceptions to be noted. The first exception, a flash-forward, is situated before the introduction of the title of the narrative, and introduces Suei as the erotic-magazine editor he has become, before exploring his process of becoming the subjective trajectory that led him to find that subjective place – even if it was only temporarily – in Japanese society. The second exception is the repeated return to the moment that defined Suei’s subjective trajectory.
Even though the narrative structure is told in a coherent way, it is best understood as a concatenation of various vignettes. With these vignettes, some truly beautiful and illuminating, Dynamite Graffiti does not aim to provide an in-depth exploration of Suei’s subjectivity. Instead, Tominaga provides the spectator with a surface from which the atmosphere, the zeitgeist of those times, and the subjective position of Suei, delineating his drive to express himself, his preoccupation with the mystery of womanhood, and his rather anti-authoritarian stance against the ‘fatherly’ state, can be grasped.
By reading the surface of Dynamite Graffiti, it quickly becomes clear that Suei’s subjective position is nothing other than the position of the hysteric: He is confronted with the enigma of the desire of his mother as a woman and puts the symbolic father into question. In its most fundamental dimension, Suei’s drive to create aims to answer that unsolvable enigma of the desire of woman (Narra-note 1). As is shown, it does not take long for him to situate his fantasmatic answer in sexuality as such, an answer marked by his own maleness and one that will eventually introduce him to that specific industry that circumvents the enigmatic nature of women’s desire by reducing her to the social economy of the phallus and elevating her body to the position of an object to enjoy (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3). Suei’s fantasmatic answer is furthermore one of the reasons his relationships with women remained problematic.
Besides subtly evoking Suei’s subjectivity – a subjectivity sensibly brought to life by Tasuku Emoto, the narrative also sensibly shows, as seen through the eyes of Suei, the atmosphere of the sixties, seventies, and eighties (psycho-Note 1, Narra-note 4). In the sixties, the problematic nature of the then normal work-conditions is evoked, while in the eighties the atmosphere of censorial prudishness is vividly presented. Concerning this prudishness, it is interesting to note that even though Suei knew very well what was prohibited in print – mastering the art of apologizing along the way, he kept pushing the limits, just like a child, of the often very vague border between eroticism and pornography.
The cinematography of Dynamite Graffiti is straight-forward, mingling fixed shots, following shots, and moving shots into a fluid whole (cine-note 1). The narrative space is painted in subdued yellowish colours that infuse it with a de-glamorized atmosphere of the past, subtly giving direction to the tone by which Suei’s subjective trajectory should be experienced. Some scenes are marked by an enticing eroticism, evoking – and this is great of Tominaga – Suei’s expression of the fact that eroticism is the art of not-showing in the cinematography as such.
The music, reduced to simplistic avant-garde jazz notes, empowers the de-glamorized atmosphere and underlines the interesting nature of Suei’s subjective trajectory. The fact that the music is able to serve a double purpose, attests to the talent Kikuchi Naruyoshi as composer and musician has. Not unsurprisingly, given the vignette-like structure of the narrative, Dynamite Graffiti uses a voice-over to give the imagery its narrative continuity, even though the imagery is not limited to Suei’s viewpoint. In other words, while Suei’s speech as voice-over reminds us of the central subject, the cinematography gives the spectator a more objective insight in the spatial context in which our subject finds himself.
Dynamite Graffiti is a wonderful impressionistic palette exploring the zeitgeist of the sixties, seventies, and the eighties as much as it evokes Suei‘s subjective trajectory through the decades and fantasmatic trust that defined this trajectory. What is most beautiful in Dynamite Graffiti is not that Suei is ultimately kept somewhat enigmatic for the spectator, but that it subtly but sensibly reveals the productive as well as the destructive effects a certain fantasmatic solution to the enigma of female desire can have.
General-note 1: The first version of this review appeared on Asian Movie Pulses last year.
General-Note 2: Important to note is that Tominaga’s narrative is not only based on Suei’s autobiographical essay, but also on many other essays he wrote. Moreover, some framed stories find their source in Tominaga’s conversations with Suei.
The narrative also consists of many composite characters: From 100 to 20.
Narra-note 1: Note the link between the enigmatic position of the mother and the overly sexualized position of the women he meets in his work as designer, magazine editor, …. etc. One could say that he, in elaborating the love-suicide of his mother, he aims at, focuses on her being as sexual.
Narra-Note 2: It is fun, but confronting to see the social economy of the phallus is being made explicit – and reduced – in the narrative. This happens when the customers of a certain club are called ‘cocks to be taken care off’.
Narra-note 3: The vignette framing Suei’s phallic cabaret tower underlines explicitly how important the phallic dynamic is in his subjective functioning.
Psycho-note 1: Tominaga fully understands gat a subjective position is best evoked at the surface of the narrative, at the level of the signifier.
Narra-note 4: As Suei’s drive to create, his drive to expose his fantasmatic but phallic answer about women’s desire, persists, one should notice that he remains ignorant to women as subjects, ignorant of the societal Other. The reason why his life becomes empty is, furthermore, caused by his ensnarement in the dynamics of capitalism – the dynamic of the phallus as positive entity.
Cine-note 1: Following shots are often framed in slow-motion.