Although not as infamous for his work outside of his native Japan, publishing wunderkind and filth-peddling provocateur Akira Suei was the eastern equivalent to a Larry Flynt type whose warped sense of morality and taste propelled him into becoming one of the country’s most successful porn producers.
Much like Milos Forman when he gave the smut-selling devil his fair, uncompromising due back in 1996, eclectic director Masanori Tominaga has tasked himself with transcribing the life and times of a personality formed and molded by the erotic entertainment industry of Japan in the ’70s and ’80s who went from a lowly son of a depressed miner and suicidal mother to Japan’s pornographic kingpin.
Aided directly by Suei in his own words, the film being based off his autobiographical essay “Suteki na Dainamaito Sukyandaru,” Tominaga’s film serves both as a probing document of the thriving industry of that era, complete with its sleazy exploitative practices rendered in uncomfortable detail, as well as a reflective trace for Suei whose trajectory from a for-hire illustrator making ribald advertisements for brothels to a publishing magnate selling 350,000 copies an issue is too impressive to discredit.
Whether or not we view past the veil of the pornographer to the person whose most formative childhood event was his mother’s spectacular suicide by dynamite, a frequently revisited motif in the film, is secondary to the film’s success because it hits its most entertaining and provoking strides when it is just showing how the neophyte Suei operates/navigates within the industry. Unlike, say, a Larry Flynt who lived sleaze both personally and professionally, the unassuming village boy of Akira Suei fell backward into it after having his spirit broken by factory work and dropping out of graphic design school.
The film positions his “descent” into porn production, not as a man being corrupted by the seductive taboo of an industry or responding to a deeply personal desire, but more as a capitalist venture he just happened to have the willingness to exploit. As played by Tasuku Emoto, Suei’s ascent into the upper echelon of adult entertainment is less about his tenacity or appreciation of his chosen subject matter and more about his pragmatism as the straitlaced artist turned businessman who is more bystander to the industry rather than the innovator. This perspective of indifference and the film’s rendering of the porn industry is not akin to a punchline or morality tale and is more like the intricate business it was gives Dynamite Graffiti an air of authenticity and a fascinating point of view to explore.
The film and Tominaga’s script is at top form when we are invited in a behind-the-scenes-style, candid replication of Suei’s various tasks and jobs as he made his way up the ladder to being chief editor of several explicit magazines. Though we start with him at the height of his fame, being called in by the police to be reprimanded like a rowdy teenager for his magazines featuring genitalia and penetration (strict obscenity laws for Japanese porn) in a hilarious scene that shows the character’s flippancy and willingness to break taboo for financial gain, the film bursts with striking and informative tidbits of the day-to-day workings of being apart of that filthy underworld.
He pulls himself out of designing erotic ads for host clubs to drawing erotic comics to assisting in photo shoots to running several magazines, and all along this path, Tominaga carefully recreates the specifics and absurdities of each step for a stranger-than-fiction feel that the film happily rolls with for great comedic effect. It is a carefully researched film that strives for excellence when it points its unflinching, impartial gaze at an industry going through an era of prominence and change, and with Suei as our guide, Dynamite Graffiti achieves this outside-looking-in impression that takes this industry seriously without ever belittling it or masking its model of exploitation and provocation.
Sadly this is only half of the film’s aim. While the other side of Dynamite Graffiti’s appeal is to finally give a face to the infamous publisher of 30 years ago, the film is a facile recitation of historic events and milestones without the same care or probing intuition it saves for the various facets of the porn industry. We do delve into his personal life – such as his extra-marital affairs; his mental breakdown, which saw him deliberately wasting money to the point of throwing it out of his pockets as he walked down the street; and, of course, the supposedly formative experience of losing his mother in a spectacular, incomprehensible fashion, but the effect is more superficial than anything.
Either because of Emoto’s committed, ambivalent performance or Tominaga’s unwillingness to read into the person beyond the source essay, Akira Suei presents as a flattened, malleable figure devoid of a definable interior. This is not necessarily a detriment because the remaining content of the film is highly engaging, but for a biopic to have its central figure unnecessarily inaccessible beyond his going through the motions of his industry, is a significant flaw.
Dynamite Graffiti has some blind spots, both in its representation of its main figure and also on some of the more unsettling aspects about the industry in portrays. A brilliant, subtle scene involving Suei turning away from a sex worker’s imminent abuse to ambivalently focus on an advertising board epitomizes these issues but never risks to comment on them. When it is knee-deep in prowling the ins and outs of the porn industry, the film shines as provocatively as Boogie Nights, but peering past this fun surface confronts you with little to no depth for the avatar doing the prowling.