When news of Antiporno first reached my ears, I was deeply confused: Sion Sono, the enfant terrible of madcap Japanese indie cinema, had made a literal porn film. A porn film, with porn actors, financed and released by a porn company. A deeper look reveals that, although this much is true, there are many more factors present in Sono’s vision and circumstance, illuminating what turns out to be a pretty unique ride.
Antiporno comes as part of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno revival; a reboot of a critically and commercially successful adult film line from the sleazy ‘70s and ‘80s Japanese film industry. The one rule is simple: there has to be nudity/sex every 10 minutes, but apart from that, the auteur gets to do whatever the hell they want. In their heyday, this meant that Roman Porno films could be both commercially and critically successful, before eventually dying out with the advent of adult video. Sono’s addition is, thus, the real deal: low budget, shot on location on a tight schedule, and meeting the Nikkatsu criteria religiously. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an object to be taken at face value.
Ami Tomite stars as Kyoko, an influential novelist and style icon who seems to spend her days hallucinating over her dead sister, running around screaming, and puking into a toilet bowl within her pop-art mansion. Her PA, Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui), proves to be the last straw in this bizarre kaleidoscope of a breakdown, becoming the submissive partner in an escalating game of sadomasochism. We swiftly find out (as a director yells ‘CUT!’) that this was, in fact, all scripted: the reality is far different. Kyoko is a meek, abused, and deeply damaged actress, subjugated by the cast and crew of the production. Through an interweaving of retakes, flashbacks, and hallucinations, we learn about her past, and how the adult film industry has forced her into a spiral of self-hate.
Sono’s characters inhabit a surreal, heightened world of garish colour and exaggerated lighting. The main room of Kyoko’s house is canary yellow, decked with matching pop artwork, and punctuated by dusty, misty light from the plethora of ventilation fans that line the walls. Adjacent to this is a blood-red bathroom, and the baby blue and pristine white of the film set. From the get-go, it’s clear that this is a Sion Sono piece of work, in that it feels like art as opposed to a narrative film. The deeply ingrained fakeness of the whole setup makes us question the very nature of filmmaking: what are we watching, what does the director intend for us to feel, and, most of all, what is our moral culpability as voyeurs lapping up the sexual misadventures of an abused artist?
Common to other Sono works, as well, Antiporno exists on about 4 levels of meta. For a start, it’s an anti-porn film that is, categorically, a porn film. Not just that, but a porn film financed by a porn studio, and released under a porn moniker. It’s a film about making a porn film, which then becomes the film itself. And it’s a film which makes its point by repeating itself over the course of varying scenes, at one point even shouting out its own manifesto directly into the viewer’s face.
Sono has definite ideologies that he’s looking to explore, mainly about how free speech serves those who can afford to speak freely, whilst forcing those that cannot to look on in submissive acceptance. He’s a tad overzealous with this message: hammering it in 4 or 5 times over the course of the brief runtime, seemingly concerned over whether his audience will ‘get it’ or not. However, what emerges is a deeply interesting portrait of gender roles in Japan, combined with a feminist perspective. The disjointed, postmodern structure of Antiporno’s narrative, too, appears to indicate an exploration of voyeurism and filmmaking in a way that’s determined by the eye of the beholder.
The key thing I think Sono is lacking here, however, is any real sense of the erotic. He’s created a wildly subversive, strangely thoughtful piece that eviscerates gender roles across entertainment, whilst posing as a pink film. The ultimate act of transgression on his part, I feel, would be to make this piece actually sensual. However, the didactic ambitions he so clearly pursues make the sex itself feel hollow and marginalised: existing solely to fulfil the Roman Porno criteria. In this way, somewhat coincidentally, Antiporno bares similarities to Cate Blanchette’s Manifesto, also released this week, which likewise dedicates itself to a bizarre distance from mainstream relatable narrative to make a theoretical point.
All in all, Antiporno is an intensely brisk deconstruction of the porn industry in the guise of a porn film: a wolf in sheep’s clothing as you will. Flooded by an intense, nauseatingly primary colour scheme, and caked in style, it’s a film that’s sure to never leave its audience bored. However, the esoteric nature of the work, its insistence on shoving its point in viewers’ faces, and the lack of true eroticism may make this one a tough sell.