Go on without me.
Escape while you’re young because the longer you wait the more trapped you become. In this way we’re all lizards encased in glass bottles—a motif that runs throughout Sion Sono‘sアンチポルノ [Anchiporuno] [Antiporno], the director’s entry into Nikkatsu’s “Roman Porno” reboot forty years after giving birth to the genre. It’s during adolescence that we’re told how to act, cultural rules—no matter how archaic—gradually ingrained until they become truths we cannot combat because we don’t realize we should. Eventually we reach a point where learning ceases and being cements. Subservience as a choice becomes moot as life evolves in that mold. This is the basis for systemic oppression in all its forms, sexuality-based and gendered included. Sono exposes it with the very art form created to exploit it.
This softcore porn (the “Roman Porno” label dictated a minimum quota of four nude/sex scenes per hour in return for creative freedom) dives beneath the surface of sex as a construct. The character Kyoko (Ami Tomite) calls out the hypocrisy of her parents treating the act as taboo despite engaging in it themselves on a nightly basis without shame. How is her eighteen-year old to reconcile that discrepancy? How are any of us? Most of porn’s mainstream appeal to young men is the hypocritical nature of it quite literally holding virgin women as a unique prize to covet and demand while also turning them into whores to titillate when captured. It simultaneously sexualizes and chastises, allowing men unlimited partners while punishing any woman who doesn’t marry her first.
But this is a thematic message that comes later. It’s the intellectual underpinning many will be quick to disbelief exists in something so “debasing” as pornography. This is why Sono laughs at Kyoko when she asks about the theme of the film she’s acting in onscreen. The characters laugh and ultimately we do too because the fourth-wall breaking reveal of her as an actor has yet to arrive. The question isn’t something we’d think to hear because the first thirty minutes of the film play out as though the whole is intentionally nothing more than lustful fantasies and surreal S&M. Sono in effect works backwards, showing us a film within the film before pulling back to shine a light on that film’s meaning and how it’s born.
Antiporno is very much what its title suggests. Sono subverts porn’s goal from eroticism to aesthetics and emotion instead, but to do so he must first embrace it. That is why we meet Kyoko rising from her bed sans clothes before wondering what to do next. She’s presented as an object, a woman whose identity has been rewired by the objectification she’s accepted as an escape from the prudishly boring upbringing she endured previously. We watch her sit on a toilet, dress, and view a memory of her first time (it being consensual or rape an answer coming later with context). We witness her crazed self-absorption, aggressive superiority complex when berating her submissive assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui), and deranged fetishes when an audience to entertain arrives.
And then Sono pulls the rug with a director yelling, “Cut!” Suddenly Kyoko isn’t the prima donna and Noriko isn’t the infatuated heel. Their roles are reversed once artifice is proven purely artificial. Kyoko is a first-time actor wherein no one on set remembers why she earned the lead role and Noriko is the veteran lost in hysterics and prone to smacking her co-star in the face until tears begin to flow. The tone shifts from brightly colored sex romp devoid of consequences to real world drama with nothing but. This isn’t the only abrupt change, though. We’ll also go back in time to Kyoko as a child and Noriko as her sister. We’ll hear of dark memories, childhood confusion, and adult insincerity—freedom as merely a lie.
Everything becomes fluid visually as events repeat with different power dynamics and realities. The same verbal exchange can be read as campy, demoralizing, and nightmarish all with a switch of venue, attitude, and context. Whereas we’d usually see the pain of experiencing something harrowing before the victim repurposes that horror into a cathartic artistic release, however, Sono shows how frivolity can mask darkness. Sex as escape becomes a cost rather than a product. We see the psychological distress Kyoko endures underneath the surface “fun” of an industry that is in many respects dangerous work. This desire to become a whore and shed one’s insecurities is ultimately a means for her to numb herself against the ridicule, deceit, and victimhood experienced otherwise. She imagines control because it doesn’t exist.
This idea that being a woman in Japan means staying in your place remains at the forefront of what’s happening as Kyoko proves both victim of this truth and warrior against it. And there’s a reason Sono’s depiction of feminine strength stealing power is always steeped in more abuse. His characters are either beaten or beaters with no room for clarity or growth because his nation has yet to provide women the means to achieve either. These women are victimized by cultural norms, older generations, self-centered egos, and eventually by their own hands. Sono shows this cyclical persecution with damning brutality and a single line of warning to avoid it. How can you fight back when the world dictates your place as virgin or whore? Anyway you can.