Running Time: 78 mins
Release Date: January 28th, 2017
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono (Screenplay),
Starring: Ami Tomite, Mariko Tsutsui, Asami, Fujiko, Ami Fukuda, Honoka Ishibashi, Yuya Takayama,
The Roman Porno Reboot is a celebration of the series of softcore films put out by Nikkatsu from the 70s to the late 80s. Roman Porno is a realm where writers and directors can exercise creative freedom in content so long as they adhere to tight shooting deadlines and insert a sex scene in the proceedings every so often. Sion Sono is one of the veteran directors who took part in this reboot and he has taken this freedom to creative extremes and made a challenging film, an overwhelming visual and aural assault on the senses that delivers a feminist diatribe against the subjection of women.
The story starts with Kyoko (Ami Tomite), a highly-strung celebrity novelist and artist who also considers herself a super whore exploring the furthest reaches of sex. She is feeling the nerves before an interview and photo shoot with a major magazine writer and fashion photographer so she decides to take her insecurities out on her older eager-to-please assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) whom she sadistically humiliates through various lewd acts. The intensity ratchets up through the actual interview as Noriko, in an effort to be a whore like Kyoko, allows herself to be violated by the photographer’s assistants whilst being denigrated by Kyoko.
What develops seems to be like an arty feminist battlecry for the freedom of female sexual expression since all the characters are women and Kyoko pontificates on the subjection of women to the strictures of language, the male gaze, and codified gender roles. In her aesthetically out-there studio apartment painted extreme colours of custard-yellow and scarlet with outre furniture including a lizard trapped in a glass bottle, she is the Queen of the world, the mistress of the myths of sex, and she will explore and explode sex through her work and her excessive behaviour. This vain and childish provocateur is not what she seems, however, as ghosts of someone from her past haunts her vision and something heavy weighs on her mind which is increasingly fragmented as we see during the sexual fracas she orchestrates.
This being a pink film there is no sex on display but plenty of nudity, mostly through the brave performance of Tsutsui who does full-frontal and is subjected to S&M play. To be quite frank, it isn’t the least bit titillating since the scenes of degradation are accompanied by Kyoko giving political speeches and a piercing sound, a high-pitched noise that only she can hear and it is during these moments that self-doubt appear across her face and the audience has the provocation of questions on their mind rather than the pleasures of flesh. Sono has a trick up his sleeve…
This film works best with the surprise so skip the next two paragraphs to avoid spoilers!
At the 29 minute mark of the film switches on a dime as the set literally opens up from the studio apartment to a wider stage after a director yells “CUT!”. The camera pulls back and we see men are filming things and there is a crew of people ready to mistreat Kyoko who reverts to her real-world persona of an uncertain young woman in the predatory AV industry. What emerges from this point is a scathing critique of pornography and everything else that sexually objectifies women as Sono uses his material to suggest that they are trapped in perpetual roles of virgin or whore and unable to own their sexuality. No, that is something for society to decide.
Sono embarks upon this thesis through Kyoko whose background and entry into the AV circuit is explored in a twisting series of flashbacks that are peeled back to expose how Kyoko has been exploited and hurt. What started out as an innocent interest in sex became poisoned by parental hypocrisy, a tragic death, a horrendous first sexual experience and a misguided dive into adult videos to try and master her sexual self. Along the way, the things that fool women into thinking they have freedom are criticised as Kyoko’s false mask is constructed and destructed on-screen: all her high-minded pontification about sex and female freedom are revealed to be lines from a script for a smutty art film, and she is ultimately trapped by her psychological problems in a miserable role, something, the film seems to indicate is a grim commonality amongst AV actresses.
The story switches are reminiscent of Strange Circus (2003) and while it is less ornate it is just as insidious in depicting the ill effects of sex. There would be accusations of Sono “having his cake and eating it” in depicting all of the lust (both real and manufactured) on screen whilst criticising the way women are exploited but the film is deliberately uncomfortable viewing as it switches the relationships between people in the dominant and subservient and voyeur positions and questions audiences over the worth of engaging with such “entertainment” and how women are fed the idea of sex when we see the female characters are clearly victims. The most depressing part of the film is that, well, there doesn’t seem to be any escape.
Stylistically it is stunning. The film is pitched at an emotional intensity of 11 from the get go and it maintains a sort of shrill tenor through the outrageous aesthetics full of bold colours, bold set and costume design, and bold performances that are mostly shouty and plenty violent as all Japanese social mores are broken down and a sense of harmony tossed out of the window onto a trash heap of wanton lust and casual violence. Camera movement is kinetic and exciting as it roves around an expertly designed set, one large studio with a clear space in the centre acting as a stage for the actors with every prop coming into play at some point. Use of space by camera, editor, and actors is a complicated ballet at times and one that the film maintains for its running time until it comes to the colourful chaotic cake and paint scenes at the end which are some of the most enjoyably desolate and desperate five minutes you will see in cinema as Ami Tomite and others writhe around in chaos, lost in an existential nightmare.
Out of all the Roman Porno films, Antiporno means more than the portentous and funereal Aroused by Gymnopedies, it is more challenging about gender roles than the Dawn of the Felines, and while it isn’t as fun as Wet Woman in the Wind, the artistic daring is astounding. It links in perfectly with Sono’s career and the documentary The Sion Sono which reveals his mindset and how something like this can emerge from his film sets. Challenging, engaging, visually dazzling and very surprising, Antiporno is an unexpected ride!