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)

A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Tatsushi Omori, 2010)

crowd-of-threeTatsushi Omori’s debut feature The Whispering of the Gods proved so controversial that he was left with no choice other than to set up his own temporary cinema to screen it. Five years later he returned with another uncompromising look at modern society which is only a little less grim than its predecessor. A Crowd of Three (ケンタとジュンとカヨちゃんの国, Kenta to Jun to Kayo-chan no Kuni) takes what has become a staple of quirky indie comedy dramas – a small group of disconnected people taking a road trip to look for something better, and turns it into a depressingly nihilistic voyage to nowhere. Never quite achieving the kind of painful, angst ridden atmosphere of disaffected young men desperately trying to break out of a social straight jacket, A Crowd of Three is an oddly cold film, undercut with a pervasive layer of misogyny and hopelessness which makes its ultimate destination somewhere few will wish to travel.

Kenta (Shota Matsuda) and Jun (Kengo Kora) are young men working dead end construction jobs. Growing up together almost like brothers in the same orphanage the pair share an intense bond but also a shared sense of having been badly let down by life even at such a young age. Their main source of relief seems to be in picking up “loose women” from the street by asking random ladies on their own for their ages. One evening Jun picks up Kayo (Sakura Ando) – a melancholy woman with low self esteem who sleeps around because she is insecure about her own plain looks. After Kenta is assaulted by the foreman, he decides to take revenge by smashing up the office and his boss’ car before taking off on a journey north to see his (biological) brother who is currently in prison.

Kayo tags along with the pair after apparently having fallen in love with Jun who is only interested in her for easy sex and occasional cash tips. Despite the fact that the film’s original Japanese title is “Jun, Kenta, and Kayo’s Country”, Kayo is quickly cast aside by the pair of travellers who think it’s funny to throw all of her stuff out of the window and abandon her at a service station in the middle of nowhere. Getting thrown out of cars and left behind in remote places is something which happens to Kayo repeatedly throughout the film as she tries to follow Jun despite his obvious indifference towards her.

Kayo just wants to feel love, but at least as far as the film goes she’s looking for it in all the wrong places. Even if Jun does start to feel something more genuine for her in the end, it’s born of a kind of shared insecurity as he worries about a repetitive strain injury from using the pneumatic drill which turns his hand white at moments of stress. After literally jilting Kayo, Jun takes up with a vacuous bar hostess who does, indeed, recoil from his pale hand. The bar hostess has very ordinary dreams – a big house, wealthy husband, children. She’s even planned out her own death. These are all things which Jun could never give her, a middle school drop out with no family he already fears he has no future but at least he’s not railroaded onto a pre-determined course and is free to choose his destination even if he feels there is nowhere for him to go.

Kenta expresses this early in the film when he states that there are two kinds of people – those who choose how they’re going to live, and those who don’t. The boys feel as if they’re in the no choice category – unceremoniously kicked out of social care and expected to fend for themselves with no education or contacts, reliant on poorly paid temporary work to get by. In a slightly overworked metaphor, Kenta and Jun’s jobs on demolition projects point to their desire to dismantle their world but the more they smash away at it the less progress they make. Kenta’s literal smashing of the car and office belonging to his boss are his final act of choice but again it gets him nowhere. Even talking to his brother who is in prison for the most heinous of crimes, Kenta finds no encouragement but only cold rejection.

A Crowd of Three goes to some very dark places ranging from work place harassment to child abuse and sexualised violence, but it largely fails to capitalise on its grim atmosphere to make any kind of impact aside from the pervasive melancholia. Omori mostly sticks to a straight forward approach with some interesting editing choices and composition but largely relies on the quality performances of his leading players. Far from youth aflame with nihilistic rage, A Crowd of Three is bleaker than bleak and frozen throughout making the battling of its heroes to transcend their difficult social circumstances a forlorn hope of epic proportions.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hatsukoi (First Love) (初恋, Yukinari Hanawa, 2006)

hatsukoiThe 300 Million Yen Affair is one of the most famous and intriguing unsolved mysteries in Japan, not least because the missing cash has been lying dormant somewhere, apparently untouched, ever since that fateful day back in 1968. Seeing as the true story has never been discovered, the crime has taken on legendary status and become the focus of many kinds of fiction. Misuzu Nakahara’s fictionalised autobiography is just one of these as she retroactively claims responsibility for the robbery as a teenage girl in love with a detached revolutionary.

Misuzu (Aoi Miyazaki) begins her tale a couple of years before the crime as she lives a lonely and introverted life in the house of her uncle, her father having died and her mother apparently absconded with her older brother in tow but leaving her behind. It’s her 16th birthday, but no one cares. Soon enough she starts hanging around a shady jazz bar before another woman convinces her to come inside and join their group of layabout beatniks – a group which is actually lead by her estranged older brother, Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). These are the heady days of students protests – against the old order, against the ANPO treaty, against the war in Vietnam, against just about everything. Misuzu grows closer to one of their number, the quiet and mysterious Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who has a proposition for her….

Hatsukoi (AKA First Love, 初恋) is a film which is thick with period detail from the authentically smokey, sweaty jazz bar and its counterculture denizens to the nostalgic atmosphere and 1960s street scenes. However, evoking Misuzu’s own sense of ennui, director Yukinari Hanawa opts for a detached, dispassionate tone which is entirely at odds with the otherwise searing, youth on fire tension of the time period. Misuzu is always on the edges of things, younger than the other members of the group she feels as if she’s merely being permitted to stay and listen rather than invited to participate. Nevertheless, even if it’s the case that Misuzu is a by nature a passive person, the film pushes the intense nature of the social revolution going on all around her into mere background, squandering its power to bring out the sense of passion that the film feels as if it needs.

At heart, the robbery is something of a mcguffin as the real story is the true love tragedy hinted at in the title. Misuzu and Kishi grow closer through their plotting of the crime which is born of his desire to commit a different kind of revolutionary act. The money is intended to pay the bonuses of Toshiba employees and Kishi feels the best way to make a protest against economic inequality and the power of large corporations is to hit them in the finances. Misuzu plays her part well enough and the robbery comes off OK despite minor hitches allowing only a brief honeymoon period for its would be Bonnie and Clyde before history begins to move forward and eventually rips them apart. For Misuzu the robbery becomes the defining event of her youth and the birth of the love that she seemingly cannot let go. After this the jazz club is over, the protest movement dies as do some of the protestors, or else they move on to more conventional lives. Not quite a coming of age, but a death of youth before it had hardly begun.

Some injuries never heal, says the kindly old man who teaches Misuzu how to drive. A prescient remark if ever there was one. Misuzu seems locked within this brief period of her youth, before her friends died, left, or disappeared once the turbulent atmosphere of protest and revolution gave way to the consumerist 1970s and everyone forgot about the necessity for social change in the hurry to make money.

Hatsukoi becomes less a about the first love itself than about the period that surrounds it. The love was lost, but so was the bubble in which Misuzu had begun to define herself as a young woman. What Hatsukoi lacks is a sense of personal tragedy, of a soul crushing, spiritual death which locks each of the group members into their own tragic fates and seems somehow dictated despite their insistence on defining themselves in the new, youth centric world. Often beautifully photographed, Hatsukoi’s air of desolation and cold, detached tone weaken its ability to engage making its painful end of youth journey all seem rather dull.


Hatsukoi was released with English subtitles on blu-ray in Taiwan, and on DVD in Hong Kong though both editions now appear to be OOP.

Unsubtitled trailer:

69 (Lee Sang-il, 2004)

69Ryu Murakami is often thought of as the foremost proponent of Japanese extreme literature with his bloody psychological thriller/horrifying love story Audition adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike which itself became the cornerstone of a certain kind of cinema. However, Murakami’s output is almost as diverse as Miike’s as can be seen in his 1987 semi-autobiographical novel 69. A comic coming of age tale set in small town Japan in 1969, 69 is a forgiving, if occasionally self mocking, look back at what it was to grow up on the periphery of massive social change.

The swinging sixties may have been in full swing in other parts of the world with free love, rock and roll and revolution the buzz words of the day but if you’re 17 years old and you live in a tiny town maybe these are all just examples of exciting things that don’t have an awful lot to do with you. If there’s one thing 69 really wants you know it’s that teenage boys are always teenage boys regardless of the era and so we follow the adventures of a typical 17 year old, Ken (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whose chief interest in life is, you guessed it, girls.

Ken has amassed a little posse around himself that he likes to amuse by making up improbable fantasies about taking off to Kyoto and sleeping with super models (oddly they almost believe him). He talks a big about Godard and Rimbaud, posturing as an intellectual, but all he’s trying to do is seem “cool”. He likes rock music (but maybe only because it’s “cool” to like rock music) and becomes obsessed with the idea of starting his own Woodstock in their tiny town but mostly only because girls get wild on drugs and take their tops off at festivals! When the object of his affection states she likes rebellious guys like the student protestors in Tokyo, Ken gets the idea of barricading the school and painting incomprehensible, vaguely leftist jargon all over the walls as a way of getting her attention (and a degree of kudos for himself).

69 is a teen coming of age comedy in the classic mould but it would almost be a mistake to read it as a period piece. Neither director Lee Sang-il nor any of the creative team are children of the ‘60s so they don’t have any of the nostalgic longing for an innocent period of youth such as perhaps Murakami had when writing the novel (Murakami himself was born in 1952). The “hero”, Ken, is a posturing buffoon in the way that many teenage boys are, but the fact that he’s so openly cynical and honest about his motivations makes him a little more likeable. Ken’s “political action” is merely a means of youthful rebellion intended to boost his own profile and provide some diversion at this relatively uninteresting period of his life before the serious business of getting into university begins and then the arduous yet dell path towards a successful adulthood.

His more intellectual, bookish and handsome buddy Adama (Masanobu Ando) does undergo something of a political awakening after the boys are suspended from school and he holes up at home reading all kinds of serious literature but even this seems like it might be more a kind of stir crazy madness than a general desire to enact the revolution at a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. Ken’s artist father seems oddly proud of his son’s actions, as if they were part of a larger performance art project rather than the idiotic, lust driven antics of a teenage boy but even if the kids pay lip service to opposing the war in Vietnam which they see on the news every night, it’s clear they don’t really care as much as about opposing a war as they do about being seen to have the “cool” opinion of the day.

Lee takes the period out of the equation a little giving it much less weight than in Murakami’s source novel which is very much about growing up in the wake of a countercultural movement that is actually happening far away from you (and consequently seems much more interesting and sophisticated). Were it not for the absence of mobile phones and a slightly more innocent atmosphere these could easily have been the teenagers of 2003 when the film was made. This isn’t to criticise 69 for a lack of aesthetic but to point out that whereas Murakami’s novel was necessarily backward looking, Lee’s film has half an eye on the future.

Indeed, there’s far less music than one would expect in the soundtrack which includes a few late ‘60s rock songs but none of the folk/protest music that the characters talk about. At one point Ken talks about Simon & Garfunkel with his crush Matsui (Rina Ohta) who reveals her love for the song At the Zoo so Ken claims to have all of the folk duo’s records and agrees to lend them to her though his immediately asking to borrow money from his parents to buy a record suggests he was just pretending to be into a band his girl likes. Here the music is just something which exists to be cool or uncool rather than an active barrier between youth and age or a talisman of a school of thought.

Lee’s emphasis is firmly with the young guys and their late adolescence growth period, even if it seems as if there’s been little progress by the end of the film. There’s no real focus on their conflict with the older generation and the movie doesn’t even try to envisage the similar transformation among the girls outside of the way the boys see them which is necessarily immature. That said, the film is trying to cast a winking, wry look back at youth in all its eager to please insincerity. It’s all so knowingly silly, posturing to enact a revolution even though there’s really no need for one in this perfectly pleasant if slightly dull backwater town. They’ll look back on all this and laugh one day that they could have cared so much about about being cool because they didn’t know who they were, and we can look back with them, and laugh at ourselves too.


Ryu Murakami’s original novel is currently available in the UK from Pushkin Press translated by Ralph McCarthy and was previously published in the US in the same translation by Kodansha USA (but seems to be out of print).

Unsubtitled trailer:

and just because I love it, Simon & Garfunkel At the Zoo

Dead Run (疾走, SABU, 2005)

Dead run posterSABU might have gained a reputation for his early work which often featured scenes of characters in rapid flight from one thing or another but Dead Run both embraces and rejects this aspect of his filmmaking as it presents the idea of running and its associated freedom as an unattainable dream. Based on the novel by Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Dead Run (疾走, Shisso) is the tragic story of its innocent hero, Shuji, who sees his world crumble before him only to become the sacrifice which redeems it.

The story begins in a voice over narration offered in the second person by Shuji’s older brother, Shuichi. Shuji, it seems was a curious, if shy, little boy full of the usual childish questions and a curiosity about the way his world works. The boys live with their parents in an area they call “the shore” which is next to a settlement created through reclaimed land which the shore people refer to as “offshore” and somewhat look down on. One day, Shuji gets marooned offshore when his bicycle chain snaps and is rescued by the unlikely saviour of “Demon Ken” (Susumu Terajima) – a local petty gangster whom everyone is afraid of, and his girlfriend, Akane (Miki Nakatani), who is some kind of bar hostess. Soon after, Demon Ken is found buried in a shallow grave dead of a gunshot wound to the stomach, but somehow this improbable act of kindness has stuck in Shuji’s mind.

Moving on a few years, a creepy looking priest moves into the offshore area and opens up a church in a small hut complete with shiny silver crosses. Just like with Demon Ken, there’s a rumour about town that the priest, Father Yuichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), is a former criminal and murderer. Shuji becomes intrigued by the strange figure of the priest and a young girl his age, Eri (Hanae Kan), who likes to spend time in the church. However, more gangsters soon turn up wanting to buy up the offshore area to build an entertainment complex and even though most of the other residents have agreed to be resettled elsewhere, Father Yuichi won’t budge. Akane returns to the area as one of the higher ranking gangsters trying to force the church out and is happy to realise that Shuji, at least, has not forgotten Demon Ken. This won’t be the last time the pair meet again as circumstances conspire against the young boy to drag him ever deeper into the darkness of the shady adult world.

As a young boy, Shuji’s life is the ideal pastoral childhood full of bike rides through green fields and under cloudless blue skies, yet his once happy family dissolves and though he tries to run from his destiny he can not escape it. After his over achieving older brother Shuichi is caught cheating at school and is suspended, he begins to lose his mind becoming obsessed with the idea of the priest as a murderer and is fixated on exposing some dark secret about him. Of course, it turns out not to be exactly as he thought it was and Shuichi becomes increasingly disturbed before becoming a suspect in a series of local crimes which see him sent away to reform school. After this string of tragedies, Shuji’s parents start to fall apart too – his father disappearing and his mother mentally absent. Eventually even Eri leaves as the relocation programme finally kicks in.

Around this point our narrative voice shifts to that of Father Yuichi who becomes Shuji’s only responsible adult figure. However, Father Yuichi’s decision to take Shuji on a trip proves to be a disastrous one as it backfires massively forcing him onto the run and, coincidentally, straight into the arms of Akane. Though Akane had originally seemed an austere and difficult woman, she harbours an affection for Shuji as one of the few people to remember Demon Ken and to remember him for his kindness. Though she wants to help Shuji she ends up pulling him into a the darkness of her own world filled with violence and exploitation. Shuji runs again and eventually makes his way to Tokyo and to Eri who is just as broken as he is but there’s no salvation here either. Even when the pair attempt to travel back to their once idyllic childhood town, their problems follow them and destiny catches up with everyone, in the end.

Early on Father Yuichi and Eri are having a discussion about the difference between fate and karma and which might be more frightening. Eri says fate is better because you can’t change karma but perhaps you can change your fate. The film seems to disagree with her. You can try to run but somehow or other something will always stop you so the cold hand of fate can stretch its icy fingers around your heart. Different in both tone and style from SABU’s previous work, Dead Run is a bleak tale filled with loneliness and melancholy which, though it offers a glimmer of hope for those who are left behind, is not afraid to make a sacrificial lamb of its holy fool of a protagonist.


The Hong Kong R3 DVD release of Dead Run contains English subtitles.

Based on the book of the same name by Kiyoshi Shigematsu (as yet unavailable in English).

Unsubbed trailer: