At the peak of its popularity in the 1980s, the innocuously named “Shashin Jidai” (“Photo Age”) sold 350,000 copies a month. Edited by the self-made publishing impresario Akira Suei, the magazine featured cutting-edge photography by the likes of Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama and in-depth articles about underground culture, but most of its readers were just there for one thing: porn.
This was the era in which censorial prudishness forbade the depiction of even a single pubic hair, so editors had to get creative — and get good at apologizing. When we first meet Suei (Tasuku Emoto) in “Dynamite Graffiti,” he’s sat at a police station while an officer scrutinizes his latest issue, with the exasperation of a teacher reviewing a half-assed homework assignment.
“Are you mocking society?” the cop asks wearily, although if there’s any lesson to be gleaned from Masanori Tominaga’s rambling biopic, it’s that society’s moral guardians could afford to take themselves less seriously.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||138 Mins|
Adapted by the director from Suei’s autobiographical essays, the film is at its strongest when it’s depicting the practicalities of peddling smut. There’s a very funny scene of secretaries crinkling adhesive tape to provide the sound effects during phone sex, and another in which Araki (played by jazz musician Naruyoshi Kikuchi) convinces a reluctant model to shed her brassiere by repeating the mantra “This is art.”
When the authorities raid the magazine offices for the first time, it’s not on account of lewd photos but a writer’s overzealous use of sexual slang.
It’s good fun, if a bit shallow. Tominaga takes a less prurient approach to his material than Takahisa Zeze did in last year’s “The Lowlife,” which focused on the contemporary adult video industry. But Zeze at least made an effort to understand the motivations of women who work in porn; while the lack of sleaze in “Dynamite Graffiti” is admirable, it’s still very much a guys’ film.
Tominaga’s screenplay gets into more of a muddle when it delves into Suei’s personal life. The son of a mining family in rural Okayama, the future pornographer did stints as a factory worker and commercial illustrator before finding his true calling. But the most formative experience in his life came at a tender age, when his mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, and her lover committed suicide — using dynamite.
This bizarre incident haunted Suei’s career, and Tominaga doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of it. Although his screenplay mostly sticks to a standard chronological format, it keeps returning to the plight of Suei’s mother (Machiko Ono), as if by pondering the story for long enough, its deeper meaning will be revealed.
There’s an implication that the early trauma colored Suei’s subsequent relationships with women: He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) and embarks on a lengthy affair with an employee (Toko Miura) that eventually leads her to have a nervous breakdown. The latter storyline is both so tragic and so tangential to the rest of the film that it probably should have been cut entirely.
That said, there’s still plenty to like about “Dynamite Graffiti,” and Emoto’s puckish performance is a real pleasure. Make sure to stick around until the end, too. While it’s become de rigueur for biopics to feature photos of their real-life subjects over the closing credits, Tominaga goes one better: He gets Suei to sing.