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)

Japanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Daigo Matsui, 2016)

Japanese Girls Never DieJapanese Girls Never Die (アズミ・ハルコは行方不明, Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei) but, like old soldiers, only fade away in Daigo Matsui’s impassioned adaptation of the Mariko Yamauchi novel. Crushed by a misogynistic society, these are women who may well want to disappear if only as an alternative to finally being forced into submission to the predefined paths of womanhood – i.e. marriage and motherhood (and nothing else) that have been carved out for them. The young are, however, fighting back if in less than admirable ways. The best revenge on an oppressive society may be living well in one’s own way, but when that same society is at great pains to frustrate your goal the options are few.

As per the title, 28-year-old admin assistant Haruko Azuma (Yu Aoi) has gone missing. Her face, stolen from her missing poster, has been co-opted by a pair of petty punk idiots trying to come-up with a viral graffiti tag to rival Obey, but there’s no art or intention behind their minor act of social transgression so much as bravado and pithy rebellion. Nevertheless, Haruko’s image, plastered throughout the city, has become a hot topic on Japan’s social networking sites where a hundred trolls wade in with their prognostications and salacious fantasies of her violent death at the hands of a sex maniac.

Meanwhile, in an ironic subversion of the normalities of city life, young men have been urged to avoid walking alone at night following a spate of attacks by a gang of rabid school girls taking revenge on the male sex. No exact motive is given for their crusade save the missing poster that precedes Haruko’s and asks for information on a disappeared school girl, but goodness knows they have enough obvious reasons to have decided on a course of vigilante justice.

Haruko’s world is one defined by entrenched sexism. At 28 she finds herself embarrassed to be a still single woman at a wedding while a chance encounter with a school friend (Huwie Ishizaki) at a supermarket leads to more awkwardness when he pointedly remarks he assumed she’d be a housewife by now, and that she looks “old”. At work, Haruko’s colleague Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada), 37 and still unwed, is the butt of hundred jokes for the two middle-aged men who, for some reason, are their bosses though they hardly seem to do any work and automatically earn seven times Yoshizawa’s salary. The bosses urge Haruko to dress in more feminine fashions, asking invasive questions about her personal life while disparaging single women like Yoshizawa who they blame for Japan’s declining birthrate and a related raise in their taxes, avowing that women over 35 are essentially pointless seeing as their eggs are already “rotten”. Yoshizawa has developed a thick skin for their constant needling, realising that it amounts to an odd combination of sexual harassment and constructive dismissal campaign. Unwilling to pay a “higher” salary to an “older” woman, they are waiting for her to quit so they can hire a young and pretty new girl who will be naive enough to accept the pittance they intend to pay her.

It might be thought that the attitudes of Haruko’s bosses are a reflection of their generation, but the two young punks, Yukio (Taiga) and Manabu (Shono Hayama), are no different. 20-year-old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a bar girl with ambitions to enter the beauty business, gets swept into their unpleasant orbit after getting into a “relationship” with Yukio, but Yukio thinks of her only as a plaything, even going so far as to encourage the shy Manabu to try his luck because (he claims contemptuously) Aina is the kind of girl who’ll go with anyone. Later she becomes a key part of their mini graffiti movement, but once the pair start to get a little recognition they essentially erase Aina from the story taking all the credit for themselves. Aina, poignantly looking up at the poster advertising the boys’ big moment in the same way she had gazed at Haruko’s missing poster on the police station notice board, realises she’s finally had enough of all their lies and of being made to feel invisible in a society which refuses to recognise her as anything more than an object for exploitation.

Haruko’s face is literally plastered all over town, but she remains essentially faceless, her image stolen and stripped of its identity to be repackaged as a soulless symbol for two idiotic boys who not only do not care who she is or might have been but only seek to profit from claiming to be allies in a struggle while simultaneously propping up the opposing side. The image does, however, gain its own independent power, speaking for all the oppressed and belittled women who find themselves essentially disappeared in being forced to abandon their hopes and dreams in the face of extreme social pressure. The school girls are fighting back – the next generation will (perhaps) not be so keen to remain complicit in the social codes which restrict their prospects. Then again, as the image of Haruko tells one of her lost disciples, the best revenge is living well. Choosing to absent oneself from a system of social control, going missing in a more positive sense, may be the best option of all.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Dundee Contemporary Arts – 26 February 2018
  • HOME – 27 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 1 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 3 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 6 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 9 March 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 13 March 2018
  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 18 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The City Of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

city of betrayalWhat is it that makes one person betray another? Following Love’s Whirlpool, playwright and Be My Baby author Daisuke Miura returns to the world of messy modern love with a tale ridden with infidelity and the impossibility of trust. Despite being in outwardly successful relationships, the central characters find themselves seeking something, trying to eclipse some element of dissatisfaction which is more with themselves than with their partners by burying it in a meaningless affair which only becomes less meaningless as time goes on. Formerly a TV drama now recut for the big screen The City of Betrayal (裏切りの街, Uragiri no Machi) is a melancholy and contemplative piece but one which shares Miura’s rather depressing view of romance with its inherent difficulties and contradictions.

Yuichi (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young man with a part-time job he never bothers to go to and a successful girlfriend, Satomi (Eriko Nakamura), who is content to pay all the bills and even give him pocket money to out drinking with his friends. Bored at home, Yuichi checks porn sites and chats on a meet up board for casual sex. When he sees a message from “Tomo” popup wondering if anyone nearby is up for some no strings fun, he jumps right on it. Yuichi tells “Tomo” that he works in mass communications and reassures her that he’s not all that bad looking so there’s nothing to worry about.

“Tomo” claimed to be 30 and in the fashion business, but really she’s Tomoko Hashimoto (Shinobu Terajima), a 40 year old housewife who is convinced her husband has been having an affair. Tomoko is not unhappy with Koji (Mitsuru Hirata) – a salaryman of a similar age to herself, he’s a good man, considerate and well mannered if a little dull. Like Yuichi and Satomi, Tomoko and Koji enjoy a full relationship and get on pretty well even if there are the usual little niggles hiding beneath the cheery facade.

Despite having met up for casual sex, the start of Yuichi and Tomoko’s affair is a slow one in which Tomoko originally changes her mind, aware of the large age difference between herself and Yuichi and afraid it would put him off. Spending time together just as friends, the pair grow closer before heading into a love hotel for an experience which is not altogether successful. Still, they continue to meet up at regular intervals behind their partners’ backs.

The cheating and the subterfuge doesn’t sit well with either of them, but their secret affair fulfils needs which weren’t being met elsewhere. Neither Yuichi or Tomoko is particularly unhappy in their relationships but each were in their own way deeply unhappy. Yuichi’s masculine pride is hurt by his girlfriend’s status as the breadwinner while he cannot seem to get his act together, find a job, and make a success of himself. Later on he tells Tomoko that part of the reason he liked spending time with her was that she never scolded him for being the way he is, she just accepted him at face value. Tomoko by contrast, was perhaps looking either for revenge against her possibly adulterous, sometimes neglectful husband or a something more straightforward than her slightly strange marital arrangements. Though Koji is generally attentive and a goodhearted, kind person his ministrations sometimes have the whiff of manipulation and Tomoko has reasons to be suspicious of his ongoing friendship with someone called “Tamura” from “work” whom no one else at work seems to know.

In actuality it turns out that there are no faithful relationships, as one character puts it “there are many truths”. A man can love his wife and his mistress and that’s not necessarily a contradiction, much as it might seem so to the accidentally adulterous Yuichi. Despite the bond generated by their shared loneliness, the relationship between Yuichi and Tomoko remains casual, in one sense, though Yuichi eventually contemplates leaving his girlfriend and suggesting Tomoko leave her husband to allow them to start a new life together, probably knowing that it’s impossible. A lengthy post-credits sequence seems to provide a melancholy if reassuring coda as the lovers return to their respective spheres each having achieved a kind of “success”, though perhaps are no more fulfilled in themselves than they had been before. Another despairing look at modern love from Miura, The City of Betrayal is human at heart, rather than moralistic, arguing for the mature view whilst at the same time offering an ambivalent defence of conventionality.


The City of Betrayal was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Ken Nikai, 2004)

Last Quarter posterTo begin on a cynical note, Last Quarter (下弦の月 ラスト・クォーター, Kagen no tsuki Last Quarter) is a film with a wide variety of marketing hooks. The first being that it’s an adaptation of a much loved short manga series by the well respected mangaka Ai Yazawa (Paradise Kiss) so it has its shoujo pedigree firmly in place. Secondly, pop star HYDE of L’Arc-en-Ciel is central to the production as he both stars in the movie as the ghostly love interest/deathly spirit and repeatedly sings his own songs throughout the film including over the end credits. Thirdly, it also stars actress Chiaki Kuriyama well known to overseas audiences thanks to Kill Bill and Battle Royale. You’d think with all these high quality ingredients first time director Ken Nikai would be able to cook up quite a feast though he does somewhat over egg the pudding.

After a brief dream sequence, the action kicks off at the 19th birthday party of British rock obsessed Mizuki (Chiaki Kuriyama) which takes place in a Mod inspired bar. Unfortunately, her best friend gets very drunk indeed and takes this opportunity to show Mizuki a photo of herself and Mizuki’s boyfriend in a compromising position. Mizuki throws a shoe at the no good philanderer and walks out on her own party ending up at a mysterious Western style mansion occupied by a sad man playing a guitar. She hits it off with “Adam” and decides to jack in her unhappy family life with her father and step-mother to leave for England with him. Sadly, she gets hit by a car on her way home only to wake up trapped inside the house and having lost all memory of who she formerly was. Soon enough, another girl, Hotaru (Tomoka Kurokawa), turns up and, assuming she’s a ghost, decides to help her “cross over” , but it’s all a little more complicated than Hotaru and her team had bargained for.

Last Quarter takes on an oddly imbalanced feel as it veers into star vehicle territory putting HYDE and his title song centerstage at the expense of Mizuki who ought to be the protagonist of the story. Understandably, as she’s fallen under the curse of the house, Mizuki is a mostly passive force throughout the film, entirely reliant on the efforts of the gang of three who are trying to help her by figuring out what’s really going on. The mystery element itself is quite an intriguing one but is often frustrated by the importance placed on the supernatural romance. Stretching plausibility to the limit, the events in question span 30 years and two continents to spin a yarn of pure love enduring beyond the grave. Pure love and grudge movies aren’t usually allowed to mix and they don’t quite here although Last Quarter certainly has elements of both.

Last Quarter’s biggest failing is in its production values which are generally on the low side. Nikai aims for an urban gothic aesthetic and achieves something close to sense of European decadence but opts to avoid the darkness inherent in the genre for a fairytale atmosphere. The effects are very highly stylised and old fashioned but Last Quarter doesn’t even attempt to make that work in its favour so much as offering it at face value.

In essence, Last Quarter often feels like an overblown music video for its rock star actor even if he actually has a relatively small role. Director Nikai has often worked with the band before and (apparently) there is a degree of recurring symbolism here that long time fans will instantly pick up on but will leave the casual viewer a little confused. Very firmly aimed at a younger teen female audience, Last Quarter will play best to fans of non-threatening supernatural romance but even then they’d be best advised to avoid thinking any of this through and simply enjoy the ghostly shenanigans for the ridiculous rag tag narrative they are. An interesting mix of ‘60s mod rocker cool with its parkas and vespas, and full on gothic with byronic heroes sitting in decaying mansions in the middle of creepy forests singing about their broken hearts, Last Quarter is incoherent to say the least but fans of its rockstar leading man will likely find their perseverance rewarded.


Last Quarter is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD in the US courtesy of Geneon.

Unsubtitled trailer:

Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2015)

Her GranddaughterRyuichi Hiroki has one of the most varied back catalogues of any Japanese director currently working. After getting his start in pink films and then moving into V-Cinema, Hiroki came to prominence with 2003’s Vibrator – an erotically charged exploration of modern alienation, but recent years have also proved him adept at gentle character drama. Her Granddaughter (娚の一生, Otoko no Isshou), though coming with its own degree of strangeness, is another venture into the world of peaceful, if complicated, adult romance.

Tsugumi, a still youngish woman with a good job in IT in Tokyo returns to her rural hometown to look after her ailing grandmother. When her grandmother unfortunately passes on, Tsugumi inherits her house and begins to consider not going back to her old life but staying and taking over her grandmother’s hand dyed fabric business.

Feeling a little alone after the funeral, she’s shocked to encounter a slightly abrasive older man who apparently has a key to the annex given to him by the grandmother. Confused, Tsugumi can’t exactly throw him out (much as she’d like to), but gradually the two start to form a tentative relationship.

Her Granddaughter is indeed based on a best selling manga by Keiko Nishi, which might go some distance to explaining some of its more unusual plot elements. Though in essence it’s a fairly innocent tale of May to September love between a lonely, unfulfilled young woman looking for a simpler way of life, and a sensitive if difficult older man with a complicated past, there’s more to it than that. Specifically, the grandma problem. The question whether or not to pursue a man who may have previously dated your grandmother, is not one that many young women will be faced with.

Tsugumi herself is obviously grief stricken after her grandmother’s death and has also left a messy situation behind her in Tokyo. The lack of desire to return may be partly to do with this same unresolved question, though the idea of a slower, more traditional way of life obviously appeals to her. Even when the possibly ex-boyfriend of her grandmother, Kaieda, abruptly moves in, she reverts to classic gender roles by doing his washing and cooking for him, expecting him to perform the more “manly” tasks like chopping wood and making sure the fire is in for the bath. According to her friend visiting from Tokyo, this is something Tsugumi tends to do which marks her as a little out of step with her more progressive city friends.

Kaieda is an outwardly abrasive, chain smoking philosophy professor who appears to be nursing a life long broken heart. He aims for a classically cool persona with his affected ennui yet, despite his gruffness, he is a pretty good judge of character able to nudge people in the direction they should be heading but might be about to miss such as when a gauche local politician with a longstanding crush on Tsugumi might be about to accidentally rebuff the attentions of a shy but pretty girl from the municipal office who is clearly interested in him.

A later scene sees Kaieda and Tsugumi becoming a temporary family with a little boy mysteriously dropped on their doorstep. Kaieda often harshly indicates to the boy that his mother has abandoned him and won’t be coming back. Lonely childhoods of rejected children become something of a running theme as the resultant certainly of abandonment leaves each of our now adult protagonists looking for a premature exit from any potentially serious relationship. For all his aloof exterior, Kaieda is sensitive soul, though one easily read after discovering the key to all his insecurities.

One of Hiroki’s softer efforts, Her Granddaughter is nevertheless a warm and gentle character driven romantic tale. Full of beautiful country landscapes and refreshing summer breezes, the circularity of all things comes to the fore as Tsugumi in some senses becomes her grandmother and sees herself in the sad little boy as he climbs on a stool to wind a clock just as she had done in her own childhood. An interesting, resolutely old fashioned tale of modern romance which, though shrouded in several taboos neatly side steps them and encourages us to do the same, Her Granddaughter is a gentle gem from Hiroki which proves rich both in terms of theme and of emotion.


English subtitled trailer: