Perhaps the best characterization of Sue Akira comes in a (non-crucial) scene late in the film where he is visiting the maker of a lifelike prosthetic sex doll. The purpose is one of placating the head of the small company, but puts Akira in a unique situation to explore the unknown; it also gets uncomfortably weird. And much of the life of the subject of this biopic seems to go like that; provoking, apologizing, and trying to satisfy the cravings of a seemingly insatiable curiosity.
Context is important. Picture a desolate mining town during wartime, where Sue Akira witnessed his parents’ relationship explode, figuratively and quite literally when his mother commits suicide with a man she engages in an affair, employing the titular destructive element, and then further decays. Akira later whisks himself off to Tokyo with hopes of succeeding as an artist, while an oppressive censorious regime and radical leftists waged war, and an underworld criminal element took hold of back alleys and red light districts with bars and brothels. We follow as the student tries to make a living by plying his trade in these dangerous environs, but later forges a career as a successful pornographic magazine publisher in the ‘80s.
It’s a curious choice for an opening night film, which the festival holds up as a representation of their own path, devoted to incorrigible mischief (and perhaps more than a little audience-provocation). And it is not always so dynamic; the film that is. The telling of Akira‘s early and late days move at a somewhat plodding pace. The middle, though, particularly in the furor of his activity with prurient materials, does achieve some vivid proportions. An anarchic feeling of the time is captured well, both sonically with avant garde soundscapes, and visually with plenty of iconic artwork on display. Much of it would appear to be genuine artifacts; covers and interior shots of the publications he worked on. Others being real or close approximations of psychedelic graphic design work of the time, bringing to mind such figures as Tadanori Yooko. There is also a brief but illuminating depiction of infamous photographer Nobuyoshi Araki (whose work is on display at the Museum of Sex, tying in nicely to this screening, and will be through the end of August).
And that was not a slip before, referring to these visuals as art. There is a definite artistic bent to Sue’s designs put forth, marking a strange intersection suggesting involvement with the pornographic industry was a way to get a foot in the door and find an outlet for his self expressive ideas.
While tied to the scene of radicalism and rebellion, Sue proved to forge a shrewed existence that let him dip into trouble but only just so. It makes for a somewhat less fantastic subject than one might expect. Unsurprisingly, he does a less than stellar job in the relationship department, yet he manages to walk away mostly unscathed by his lapses in fidelity. It can feel somewhat irksome, yet it is probably a very honest accounting (in fact the film is based on an essay by the subject himself. It mostly hangs together, except for one thread that follows his infatuation and subsequent disenchantment with a female employee, who later ends up suffering a debilitating mental ailment. Its depiction on screen is frustratingly lacking in point of view or any apparent reflection.
Drawing connections between shameful family experiences, and uninspiring atmosphere, with the gravitational pull of great metropolis like Tokyo, There is certainly insight to be taken about the rise of an artist/rabble rouser. There is plenty of amusing tawdriness to boot.
DYNAMITE GRAFITTI is the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival opening film, and will be screened with an appearance and Q & A by with director Tominaga Masanori and actor Emote Tasuku. Visit the NYAFF homepage for tickets and information.