Dynamite Graffiti (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Masanori Tominaga, 2018)

Dynamite Graffiti posterThe division between “art” and “porn” is as fuzzy as the modesty fog which still occasionally finds itself masking “obscene” images in Japanese cinema, but for accidental king of the skin rag trade Akira Suei it’s question he finds himself increasingly unwilling to answer even while he employs it to his own benefit. Back in the heady pre-internet days of the 1980s, Suei was the public face behind a series of magazines along differing themes but which all included “artistic” images of underdressed women in provocative poses alongside more “serious” content provided by such esteemed figures as Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki in addition to stories and essays penned by “legitimate” authors and the more scurrilous fare written by Suei himself. Inspired by one of Suei’s essays “Dynamite Graffiti” (素敵なダイナマイトスキャンダル, Sutekina Dynamite Scandal), Masanori Tominaga’s ramshackle biopic has the informal feel of a man telling his sad life story to a less than attentive bar girl as he takes us on a long, strange walk through the back alleys of ‘70s Japan.

The entirety of Suei’s (Tasuku Emoto) life is lived in the wake of a bizarre childhood incident in which his mother (Machiko Ono), suffering with TB and trapped in an unhappy marriage to a violent drunk, chose to commit double suicide with the young man from next door. Perhaps there’s nothing so strange about that in the straightened Japan of 1955, but Suei’s mother chose to end her life in the most explosive of ways – with dynamite stolen from the local mine. Carrying the legacy of abandonment as well as mild embarrassment as to the means of his mother’s dramatic exit, Suei finds himself a perpetual outsider drifting along without the need to feel bound by conventional social moralities as symbolised by the “ideal” family.

What he longs for, by contrast is freedom and independence. Bored by country life he dreamt of moving to the city to work in a factory, but the problem with factories is that they’re mechanical and turn their employees into mere tools with no possibility of personal expression or fulfilment. Spotting an advert for courses in “graphic design”, Suei’s world begins to open up as he embraces the bold new possibilities of art even as it wilfully intersects with commerce.

Taken with the new philosophy of design as the message, a means of “exposing” oneself and ultimately enabling true human connection, Suei remains frustrated by the limitations of his role as a draughtsman for local advertisers and, inspired by a friend’s beautiful poster, finds himself entering the relatively freer creative world of the “cabaret” scene as a crafter of signboards and flyers. The cabaret bars are little better than the factories, exploiting the labour of women who themselves are the product, but Suei’s distaste is soon worn down by constant exposure. From the clubs and cabarets it’s only a natural step towards erotic artwork, nudie photographs, and finally a vast magazine empire of “literary” pornography.

Suei’s accounts of his youth are filled with a lot of high talk about the possibilities of art, of his desire to remove the masks which keep us divided so that we might all know “true” human love. Whether his adventures in adult magazines can be said to do that is very much up for debate. They are, as he freely admits, expressions of male fantasy – exposing a perhaps unwelcome truth about the relationships between men and women even as they continue to exploit them. Yet Suei’s own desire to find something more than a potential for titillation in his work continues to dwindle as he finds himself engaged in increasingly complicated schemes to avoid censure from the police while simultaneously insisting that his magazines are both “artistic” and not.

His insistence that the photographs are “artistic” becomes his primary weapon in getting sometimes vulnerable young women to agree to take their clothes off. Abandoning his loftier aspirations, Suei sinks still further into the smutty morass whilst still maintaining the pretension that his magazines are not like the others. He neglects his wife (Atsuko Maeda) to chase fleeting affections with unsuitable or unstable women, one of whom eventually descends into a mental breakdown which provokes in him only the realisation that his desire for her was a romantic fantasy which her illness has now dissipated. Art is an explosion, Suei claims, but his mother was the explosive force in his life, blowing him off course and leaving him too wounded to embrace the reality he so desperately claims to crave but continues to reject in favour of the same kind of male fantasies his magazines peddle.

Everyone around Suei seems to be damaged. Nary a face in the red light district is without a bandage or bruise of some sort. These are people who’ve found themselves at the bottom of the ladder and are desperately trying to scrap their way up. Times change and Suei’s empire implodes. Porn is swapped for pachinko as the exploitable pleasure of choice paving the way for yet another reinvention which sees him throw on a kimono to rebrand himself as his own mother and self-styled pachinko expert. You couldn’t make it up. Still, perhaps there is something more honest in Suei’s pachinko persona than it might first appear even if his present “art” is unlikely to enlighten us to the true nature of love.


Dynamite Graffiti is screening as the opening night movie of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (南瓜とマヨネーズ, Masanori Tominaga, 2017)

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise posterIt’s important to be supportive towards your partner’s dreams, but what if your support is actually getting in the way of their development? The question itself never seems to occur to the heroine of Pumpkin and Mayonnaise (南瓜とマヨネーズ, Kabocha to Mayonnaise) as she descends deeper and deeper into a dark web of wilful self sacrifice hoping that her singer songwriter boyfriend will finally get his act together and come up with some new material. Adapted from the manga by Kiriko Nananan, Masanori Tominaga’s charting of a modern relationship is perhaps slightly more hopeful than those which have previously featured in his movies but nevertheless takes his heroine to some pretty dark places all in the name of love.

Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) is a 20-something woman living with her aspiring rock star boyfriend, Seiichi (Taiga). In order to facilitate his art, she has convinced him to give up work while she supports the couple financially through her job at live music venue. Seiichi, however, remains conflicted about the arrangement and hasn’t written anything of note in months. In fact, as Tsuchida tells a colleague, he barely leaves the house which means he’s not likely to be suddenly inspired either. What Seiichi doesn’t know is that the money from Tsuchida’s regular job isn’t quite enough and she’s started supplementing her income through working in a hostess bar. Though not naturally suited to the work, she soon picks up a “particular” client (Ken Mitsuishi) who offers her some “overtime” at a hotel. Tsuchida isn’t quite sure but having come so far she can hardly turn back now, even if the guy is a pervert with a school girl fetish. Hiding the money in a cigarette box in shame, Tsuchida is eventually caught out and forced to confess to Seiichi who is horrified, placing a serious strain on their relationship.

Just as her relationship with Seiichi starts to go south, Tsuchida runs into an old flame, Hagio, who is everything Seiichi isn’t – brash, arrogant, confident, and very much not the sort of man to make a life with. Nevertheless, Tsuchida can’t help looking back and remembering how madly in love she was with Hagio (Joe Odagiri), forgetting that she was just as madly in love with Seiichi or she wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble for his benefit. Hagio himself cites Tsuchida’s all or nothing intensity as one reason he ended the relationship the first time round, she was just too into him and he found it annoying.

Seiichi, a quieter, introspective sort, never found Tsuchida’s devotion irritating but the pressure of her expectation was perhaps a barrier to his artistic success. Staying home all day, bored and depressed, Seiichi rarely found the inspiration to write between brooding about his lack of progress and feeling guilty that he couldn’t pull his economic weight. To his credit, Seiichi harbours no particularly sexist notions towards Tsuchida’s being the family earner, but he does mildly resent a barbed comment from a friend who criticises him for his “purist” stance in accusing his former band members of selling out when he is being kept by his girlfriend. Likewise, he doesn’t reject Tsuchida for engaging in prostitution or for “cheating” on him, but turns his anger inward in resenting that she felt forced to go such great lengths for the music that he isn’t quite so confident about anyway.

The problem is that Tsuchida gets far too into her idealised notions of romance rather than directly engaging with the person in front of her. She pushed Seiichi towards music and encouraged him to fulfil his dreams but in the end stifled them with her unforgiving intensity. Likewise, she ends up over engaging in Hagio’s hedonistic, devil may care lifestyle and never really stops to think where it’s going to take her. Only near the end does she begin to approach a level of self realisation which allows her to see that her relationship with Hagio will never work out because she remains afraid to enter a true level of intimacy with him in fear that he won’t like what he sees and will leave her.

Told from Tsuchida’s perspective with frequent voice overs to let us in on her interior monologue, Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is a messy “grownup” love story between three people who are still in the process of growing up. Artistic integrity rubs up against relationship dynamics as Tsuchida is forced to examine her own behaviour and realise she often, intentionally or otherwise, sabotages her dreams by attempting to impose her own singular vision upon them rather than simply let them be. As in real life, there may not be a “happy” ending, in one sense at least, but there is still the possibility of one further down the line for a woman who’s finally accepted herself and is willing to let others do the same.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Masanori Tominaga, 2009)

Pandora's BoxOsamu Dazai is one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. Beginning his career as a student before the war, Dazai found himself at a loss after the suicide of his idol Ryunosuke Akutagawa and descended into a spiral of hedonistic depression that was to mark the rest of his life culminating in his eventual drowning alongside his mistress Tomie in a shallow river in 1948. 2009 marked the centenary of his birth and so there were the usual tributes including a series of films inspired by his works. In this respect, Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Pandora no Hako) is a slightly odd choice as it ranks among his minor, lesser known pieces but it is certainly much more upbeat than the nihilistic Fallen Angel or the fatalistic Villon’s Wife. Masanori Tominaga had made an impact with his debut film The Pavillion Salamandre and seemed to be a perfect fit for the quirkier, darkly comic Pandora’s Box but perhaps in the end it was too perfect a fit.

Inspired by events from Dazai’s own life, the story centres around a young man at the end of the second world war who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time but kept quiet about it expecting to die soon and remove the burden on his family. However, when the war finally ends Risuke (Shota Sometani) inherits a new will to live and commits himself to a sanatorium to treat his lung condition. Whilst in the hospital he comes into contact with writers and poets as well as pretty nurses all the while proceeding with his plan to become a “new man” for this “new era”.

At once both hopeful and nihilistic, Pandora’s Box mixes gallows humour and denial in equal measure as the motley collection of inpatients waste their days away in this eccentric establishment which looks after them well enough but promises no real progress in terms of their health. Each of the patients receives a nickname when they enter the sanatorium so Risuke quickly becomes Hibari (sky lark). Tellingly, these nicknames overwrite real world personas – original names are recalled only at the time of death. Deaths do indeed occur but aside from these unhappy events, no one acknowledges the seriousness of their condition or the possibility that they may die from it, never leaving the hospital again. Physical pain and suffering is almost entirely absent though Risuke gives ample vent to his mental anguish through his letters to a fellow patient who has now been discharged back into the unseen chaos of the post-war world.

Indeed, the sanatorium might be a kind of idyll in this era of instability. Well fed and well cared for, the patients are far better off than many left adrift in the starving cities but the outside world rarely impinges on the isolated atmosphere of the sanatorium. Events change slightly when a friend of Risuke’s, Tsukushi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is discharged and a new nurse, Take (Mieko Kawakami), arrives stirring up various different emotions amongst the male patients in Risuke’s ward. Striking up a friendship with the younger nurse, Mabo (Riisa Naka), Risuke finds himself torn between two very different women.

Although its tone is necessarily one of depression and numbness, Pandora’s Box ends on an improbably upbeat note in which Risuke remarks that just like a climbing plant he may not know where he’s going, but it will certainly be a place of bright sunlight. A minor work filled with dark, ironic humour it’s perhaps unfair to expect the same kind of impact as Dazai’s more weighty efforts but Pandora’s Box is a lower budget affair which, although interesting enough in terms of direction, fails to make much of an impression outside of its obvious pedigree. The light jazzy score and deadbeat voice over add to the period feel whilst also lending an air of hopeless yet buoyant resignation to Risuke’s ongoing journey into the post-war world. This, in many ways, is what we’re here for – Risuke, unlike Dazai, has made a commitment to forge a way forward in which he plans to fight for the sun rather sink below the waves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Vengeance Can Wait (乱暴と待機, Masanori Tominaga, 2010)

MFBDm_Tallcase_sell_CS3Vengeance is a dish best served cold, but then if you’re going to wait a while perhaps you should make sure to add plenty of salt and spice to the mix to disguise its rather rancid odour. Adapted from a play by Yukiko Motoya, Masanori Tominaga’s Vengeance Can Wait (乱暴と待機, Ranbou to Taiki) is the strange tale of four interconnected people who each become ensnared in a bizarre circle of violent revenge!

Asuka (Eiko Koike) and Banjo (Takayuki Yamada) are currently expecting a baby and have moved back to Azusa’s hometown where she is working in a bar and he is currently seeking employment (somewhat half heartedly). Whilst Azusa heads off to work, Banjo goes to introduce himself to the neighbours and surprises Nanase (Minami) during a lengthy sutra reading session. Nanase is a very strange woman indeed – dressed in a grey tracksuit, glasses, and generally looking odd, she immediately jumps to the conclusion that she’s annoyed Banjo with her weirdness and tries to give him money to make up for it, such is her intense fear of being disliked. Things get even weirder when Azusa realises Nanase is an old high school classmate towards whom she’s still nursing an ancient grudge. This also means that Azusa knows the man Nanase is living with and addresses as “big brother” is not her actual brother at all…..

Nanase becomes the plot’s essential “object” in a sense with Azusa acting as its subject and the two men more or less relegated to the status of adverbs. Azusa’s personality changes dramatically in the presence of Nanase – seemingly perfectly pleasant and ordinary in other circumstances, her tone takes on an extremely harsh quality, almost yanki-ish in its coarseness. However, Nanase’s need to be liked, or at least not disliked, has her immediately acquiesce to whatever it is she thinks other people want of her. She’s completely incapable of saying what she might actually think or doing what she would like to do but only thinks about how others are viewing her which is both extraordinarily masochistic and actually a little bit selfish.

The relationship between Nanase and her “big brother” Mr. Yamane (Tadanobu Asano) is the perfect culmination of this strange dynamic. Nanase philosophises at one point about the certainty of hate and the mysterious quality of love – that it’s impossible to say exactly why you love someone but you can usually point to a concrete reason for hating them. She and Yamane are bound by a common event in their pasts and, she reasons, perhaps this is enough of a reason for fate to keep them together. Yamane keeps her around because he’s plotting an elaborate revenge plot for a grudge he holds against her but at five years and counting he still hasn’t figured it out yet. During this time, he’s also started pretending to go out “marathon running” but has really been crawling into the attic space to spy on Nanase while she gets on with normal household tasks throughout the day.

Things come to a head when the feckless Banjo develops an attraction for Nanase despite her deliberately slovenly appearance which she affects for the express purpose of avoiding male interest. Using her inability to say no against her, he convinces her to start an affair with him whilst also blackmailing her that if she doesn’t he’ll mistreat his wife, Azusa, whom Nananse is still keen on making up with despite the long held high school era hurt which continues to come between them.

It’s a fairly light and absurd if darkly comic set up which is more about the pointlessness of grudges, violence, and lying about yourself to please others, than it is about a grander mediation on the fruitlessness of revenge – the desire for which, strangely, does end up building an otherwise elusive connection between two people who seem to have been unable to form one in any other way. Tominaga opts for a fairly simple and straightforward approach but does a great job of avoiding the often overly theatrical feeling of many stage to screen adaptations. However, it has to be said that perhaps some of the more unusual elements play better in the enclosed, less “realistic” theatre environment than they do on screen.

That is to say, Vengeance Can Wait has the feeling of slightly throwaway fringe theatre which is partly based on the frisson of mocking supposedly bourgeois values with a series of comically absurd episodes. This approach feels much more fun over a claustrophobic 90 minutes trapped in a tiny performance space which ends up covered in the physical manifestation of a deteriorating situation, but fares a little less well when you open it up into a larger filmic world. However, the film’s odd comments on accidentally sado-masochistic relationships and its absurd black comedy provide enough quirky diversion to build an appropriately amusing atmosphere.


Interestingly enough, Vengeance Can Wait is one of the few Japanese plays which has been translated and performed in English (it’s also unusual because it seems to be a direct translation whereas most English adaptations of foreign plays are “rewritten” by an established playwright from a literal translation) – performance rights with Samuel French. There’s also a review of the run of the play in New York in 2008 from Village Voice.

unsubtitled trailer:

Rolling (ローリング, Masanori Tominaga, 2015)

384f90_4054bb8ba5554cc186f2bce4c6beb853“Weird teacher” is almost becoming a genre now. Even so, the teacher at the center of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling may give them all a run for their money (well, for about five yards before having somekind of bizarre accident, anyway). Gondo is a feckless middle aged man who was fired from his teaching position ten years previously after having been caught secretly filming the girls’ changing rooms. Now he’s back in his old stalking ground after having pulled off an improbable white knight routine by rescuing the young and pretty Mihara from a bad boyfriend in Tokyo. However, his former students have not forgotten him or his pervy ways! It’s not long before the entire town of twenty somethings are on Gondo’s case hoping for a little vengeance for their teenage betrayal.

However, Gondo’s fortunes improve slightly when it’s discovered that some of his secret recordings feature some rather salacious goings on starring a former classmate whose TV career is just about to kick off. Smelling money in the air, Gondo is suddenly everyone’s best friend again. Gondo is…still Gondo though so as you may expect this state of affairs will not last. He’s even lost Mihara to a former student of his, one he even quite likes too…

Despite his failings and protestations to the contrary, what Gondo ultimately remains is a teacher. Yes he’s made some mistakes (understatement of the century), and he’s actually quite unpleasant in a lot of ways but somehow he still wants to protect this ragtag bag of not quite young people that he previously harmed. Coming to the realisation that his actions not only resulted in revulsion and violation of trust but also had a disruptive effect on the educational progress of his students simply resulting from his abrupt dismissal, Gondo does at least want to make amends (in his own way).

However, Gondo’s just the kind of guy things never work out for. “All my students are idiots” he proclaims at one point and he’s not altogether wrong. Attempting to hatch a blackmail plot with a very strange group of a idol managers-cum-gangsters and an ex-policeman, the gang get themselves into a whole world of trouble which is only exacerbated when the almost famous subject of the video comes forward and makes a very surprising request of her old flame and Gondo’s kindly love rival Kanichi.

Darkly comic, Rolling has the air of a film noir B movie with its ever present voice over and thriller trappings including secret video taping, a blackmail plot and trio of business-like gangsters. It is though, also firmly grounded in the now despite its often surreal humour. Also branded an “erotic comedy” Rolling is fairly high on sexual content adding to its generally sleazy feeling. It may well go down as a cult hit simply for the phrase “I’m going to make a milkshake out of your filthy boob juice” which gives you some indication as to the tone.

Far from perfect but oddly touching if sometimes baffling too, Rolling is another strange and surreal adventure from Tominaga. Its slightly vulgar tone may put off some but by and large it gets away with it through sheer cheekiness and absurd humour. Gondo is a dreadful person almost all of the time, selfish and needy yet he also seems to have this yearning for redemption which makes him seem not so bad really, as does the fact that most of his former students have not turned out all that well – even the “hero” Kanichi has his problems. For those that can accept its oddly surreal tone and decidedly old fashioned gender politics, Rolling is a rewarding and delightfully absurd film that does also manage to pack in a decent (if subtle) amount of social commentary.


Reviewed at Raindance 2015.

Review of Masanori Tominaga’s Rolling (ローリング) – first published by UK Anime Network.