Director: Sion Sono
Screenplay: Sion Sono
Cast: Ami Tomite as Kyōko, Mariko Tsutsui as Noriko
Synopsis: Kyōko (Ami Tomite) is a psychologically disturbed novelist/painter who one morning decides to start tormenting her older female secretary just as a group arrive at her apartment for an interview. Then a voice off-screen shouts "Cut!" with the camera panning to a director and film crew....
Knowing how Antiporno, within the context of Nikkatsu's recent reboot project of the Roman Porno line, is the one that is getting the most vocal interest and critical critique, I cannot help but roll my eyes at the idea this is meant to be a philosophically important film on misogyny in erotica. I intend to revisit Antiporno, and likely to rewatch it, even if this review is still the same in the future, out of fascination of more esoteric and unconventional film making which is my preference. But not only is it embarrassing from a director who was capable of better, but it's also from a film written and directed by a man a retroactive step back in terms of erotica critiquing itself. It's a self critique this Roman Porno Reboot project didn't need, a bigger concern which should've been tackled that there were no female directors chosen for any of the films. A film as obvious and unsubtle as Antiporno is galling as, whilst misogyny and erotica is still problematic, there's a growing source of women actually dominating and creating their own erotica. Photography, literature, comics, even pornographic films. Even pinku, whilst full of utterly offensive work, has its own actresses from the golden era championing their work as progressive and liberating. A film that names itself Antiporno feels like a betrayal of these women who have decided that a more constructive way forwards is to not just keep criticising the past but take control of the pornographic and make their own work surrounding women's desires. Against this Antiporno is not only irritating for me because Sion Sono should be better than this, but also its patronising view on a medium better off from women themselves taking it over, not such a bloody obvious and badly told message.
But God help us if Antiporno, screaming with no indoor voice, is seen as a clever feminist subversion of pornography when it feels like Sion Sono losing more of the qualities he had in his earlier films, effectively making a pretentious remake of a much better film in his early canon called Strange Circus (2005). He encapsulates a strange set of circumstances in modern auteurism where a lot of cult directors who gel the art house with exploitative genre machinations are actually not that different from each other technically or aesthetically - the bright colours, the use of fourth wall or alienation techniques, the extreme levels of violent and sex - and it's to debate whether they actually have anything original to their transgressions when I step back and really question them. As with Park Chan-Wook and Nicolas Winding Refn, Sono dangerously compares himself to earlier era subversive genre directors, even a peer like Takashi Miike, and is in danger of being found wanting.
The problem is the art house sensibility. It should equate meaning. Love Exposure (2008) was such a film. Even a messy film like Suicide Club (2001) is helped by the fact its origins, in Japan's history of churning out genre films in the nineties and early 2000s, films that were inventive and contrasted their naturalistic paces and locations with bizarre events, and were open to idiosyncratic and unpredictable flourishes from their directors. Now after Love Exposure every film I've seen from Sono, even with virtues, feels too deliberate and too serious. Too predictable and increasingly obvious. The violence in films like Cold Fish (2010) became too grim next to their contrasting tonal shifts, Guilty of Romance (2011) whilst a good film too front loaded with cliches, and with Antiporno coming off like a farce. Even if it's a deliberate moment of humour, when an actual cake is pulled out for lead Ami Tomite to smash her face into, whilst making philosophical comments on the sexism of Japanese culture, you get the nadir of Antiporno being something you can take seriously.
The simplicity to Antiporno's screed on sexuality is the worst aspect, something that a sensible person would've figured out without the film. Wet Woman in the Wind (2016), the other film of this reboot series given as much distribution, does have its problematic moments in terms of its view of sexuality being aggressive and violent at points within its sex comedy plot, but it was also a film where the female protagonist beat up the male one and forced him to comply with her whims. Antiporno's premise and message is so simplistic that, once you brush past its dreamlike structure taken heavily from David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE (2006), it's a whoring of old clichés. A young woman whose parents were puritanical about sex but sexually active themselves. Whose younger sister, never given any depth, committed suicide and plays a one dimensional bright spot for the lead. A life as an artist that is empty and bitter or, depending on how the twists in reality suggest, an assistant for an older, bitter female writer who tormented her as her character in the first scene does to the older woman. All of which feels asinine. An old view on transgression in film for sexuality (a character forced to crawl around like a dog while sexual insults are thrown at her) that feels utterly at odds with the modern day, something post-Salo which feels more like the acts of dictators than libertines. More so as a neglected pinku film like Marquis de Sade's Prosperities of Vice (1988) from Nikkatsu is so much more better made and thoughtful about transgression.
It also doesn't have the overlong first sequence of Antiporno, a cacophony of screaming and torture of the older female secretary as the lead spouts philosophical platitudes. An uncomfortably homophobic taste in how the group of interviewers include stereotypical butch dykes, one of which rapes the secretary with a strap-on until she enjoys it. Sono critiques this as being inherently problematic by being set within a film set, a world within a world where off-stage Tomite's character is a nervous woman tormented and even slapped about by co-stars and the male director. But its stained in a patronising air in how because its meant to be a critique the aggression of the content feels more pointlessly done. Antiporno doesn't deserve being seen as superior because its critiquing this type of scene because its idea that pinku is corrupting, the lead joining a pinku production because she wants to debase herself, is juvenile. In fact its in its own la-la land considering that we live in a world where Hollywood is a hot bed of horrifying sexual harassment and casting couch incidents against actresses. When the message is obvious, the way Sono also tastefully depicts Tomite laid on a bed with her underwear just peeled under her buttocks or walking through a longue completely naked, following the Reboot project's rules of a sex scene every ten minutes, is such rank hypocrisy.
As with Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden (2016) being somewhat useless as a critique of pornography for its one dimensional villains and gorgeously shot sapphire sex scenes between the feminist heroines, Antiporno is somewhat useless as a pinku critique when there's surely better examples. The comparison to Takashi Miike is especially pertinent. His 1999-2001 works were amongst his most controversial and criticised for their extreme content, especially Ichi the Killer (2001) and Visitor Q (2001), but those films for all their problematic depictions of rape, violence and even necrophilia never treated the content as pleasant, even if there was a sick sense of humour, and always repulsed the viewer. There was always a clearly defined and bitter taste which alongside the complexity of those two examples in how they affected the viewer - the return to a happy family in Visitor Q, how Ichi the Killer deprived viewers of an easy ultra-splatter end fight and reduced its two male anti-heroes as disappointed, psychological messes - which Antiporno doesn't have the courage to do. Whilst his earlier nineties work has some un-defendable content, the stuff Miike made from Audition (1999) onwards makes something like Antiporno amateur in provocative ideas of sexuality including its dark side and gender politics.
Aesthetically Antiporno is interesting. It feels like the uber low budget version of Seijun Suzuki's Taisho trilogy between 1980 to 1991 (Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za and Yumeji) in their open artificiality. Moments of Antiporno do stand out, such as Kyōko being surrounded by versions of her younger self, but its unfocused symbolism which is not used to its fullest and expanded upon with other connecting symbolism. The bright colours also do not amount to anything but being a superflat postmodernism, a shallowness as deliberate artistry that instead accidentally brings up the film as empty. The political phrases used - such as ”1. This nation’s men are shit! 2. The freedom they created is shit! 3. The world they dream of is shit! “, statements made after Kyōko has her face in the aforementioned cake - are as shallow, the tone suggesting Sono is mimicking Godard for sharp, bullet like statements but forgetting Godard could also become introspective and elaborate with a vulnerability in his language. Its language of an obvious hardcore punk album, not rich enough as a feminist statement. A truly feminist statement has to be lengthier and as willing to wound a feminist back as it would damn misogynistic patriarchy.
Abstract Spectrum: Abstract/Expressionist/Grotesque/Mindbender
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
A embarrassing experience and a potential Emperor's New Clothes scenario if it gets a lot of critical praise. A critique of its own erotic film project aiming for the wrong target, not well done if pretty to look at. From a director like Sion Sono, seeing more films like this from him against his superior older films is a dire warning against directors becoming self aware of their critical recognition and trying too hard to appease that crowd.