Sion Sono is one of those studiously unhinged artists whose work benefits from restraint, as evinced by films such as Suicide Club and Cold Fish, which linger in the mind long after other formalist orgies have faded. With restraint, outrageousness is intensified by a counterpoint that provides a human scale. Less is usually more, as the aphorism goes. But, as Frasier Crane once proposed, if less is more, imagine how much more that more would be. This is the temptation that always dogs outré artists such as Sono and Takashi Miike. In the case of Sono’s new film, Antiporno, more is certainly less.
Antiporno is Sono’s entry in the “Roman Porno Reboot Project” initiated by the Nikkatsu studio, which produced the original run of sexploitation films that famously required sex and nudity every 10 minutes, with the rest of the specifics left in the hands of the filmmakers. This reboot series led to the recent release of Akihiko Shiota’s sexy and poignant Wet Woman in the Wind, which reveled in a male fantasy of subjugation as well as a female vision of the actualization that some men are allowed to take for granted. Antiporno is also concerned with power between men and women in the realm of commercialized sex, though Sono, allergic to subtlety, is terrified that we won’t notice his detonation of Nikkatsu’s sexploitation traditions.
Like many of Sono’s films, Antiporno is informed with an autocritical texture that’s at once compelling, disturbing, and tedious. It’s essentially a fictionalization of its own creation, following a young writer, Kyoko (Ami Tomite), as she abuses her assistant, Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui), over the course of a long morning. Sono immediately highlights the contrivances of the carnality that he’s expected to deliver on cue. When Kyoko awakens in her bed, she’s lying on her stomach, with pink panties hugging her ankles so that we can see her buttocks. If Kyoko had slept nude, the image would be less pointedly “arranged,” but the presence of her underwear suggests a guiding hand that’s deliberately spotlighting her body, while including a fetish object.
For the next 10 minutes or so, Kyoko paces her apartment waiting for Noriko to arrive. Kyoko rushes to the bathroom, and Sono lingers on her as she slides her panties back down to urinate in a gesture that merges sex with the bedroom activities that men prefer not to imagine being undertaken by women. Kyoko then screams and prances, speaking of the vileness of her situation, wondering if she’s taken a shit yet today. It isn’t difficult to discern the intent of this mixture of eroticism and scatology, as Sono equates his own exploitation of Tomite with the timeless cinematic exploitation of women, particularly in pornography, suggesting that women are regarded by men as receptacles not all that dissimilar from bathrooms.
Noriko arrives, and Kyoko relentlessly demeans her, calling her a dog and asking her if she’s up to whoring herself. Questions of a woman’s capacity to sell herself cycle through the dialogue obsessively long after another inarguable point has landed: that women are encouraged by men to take pride in their own deeply sexualized exploitation. A cadre of photographers and editors arrive at Kyoko’s apartment and Noriko is raped for the group’s delectation by a woman who’s dressed in garb that recalls Alex’s white outfit in A Clockwork Orange. The quasi rape scenes in Wet Woman in the Wind were more disturbing because they were tempered unexpectedly and unresolvedly with sweetness, while Sono embraces a shrill and cackling aura of dehumanization that wears its subversive-ness as a reductive badge of honor.
Just as Antiporno appears to have run out of tricks, Sono reveals that we’re watching a film within a film. Kyoko and Noriko are characters and the actress playing Noriko has the actual power in the outer reality of the film’s production, subjecting Kyoko to humiliations that reverse what we’ve seen in the faux narrative. Kyoko is beaten and called a dog and a cunt, and treated by her cast and crew with a hostility that especially stings in 2017, as a series of real-life sexual crimes are brought to light in Hollywood. Yet, even this development literalizes Antiporno’s striking set design—the apartment’s living room is bright yellow, while the bathroom is red (suggesting menstruation in this context)—which was already intuitively understood as a fake habitat, an architectural embodiment of exploded bitterness and repressed compassion.
Sono shuffles through other realities, explaining Kyoko’s self-loathing with a consciously pat backstory. This film’s hectoring schematic leaves nothing to chance. An evocative symbol of Kyoko’s situation—a large lizard stuck in a liquor bottle—isn’t even allowed to speak for itself, as Sono has Kyoko explain directly to the screen what it means, just as she specifies, at the end of the film, the intent of Antiporno at large. This obviousness is deliberately meant to be obnoxious, as it’s evident that Sono wants this film to be difficult to watch, as a revenge on the terms of the project in which he agreed to participate. On this level, Antiporno is an unqualified success.