Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Sion Sono's Antiporno (2016), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from December 8, 2017 - January 7, 2018 as a Special Discovery.
Few directors before or since Russ Meyer have so enthusiastically worn their art’s sexual obsessions on their sleeves as Japanese auteur Sion Sono. But if Meyer once claimed that he wasn’t interested in anything “below the belt,” Sono is the complete opposite, reveling in the upskirt wonderland of schoolgirls and women in uniform, whether it be the group suicide that opens his notorious Suicide Club (2001), the panty-shot perverts in Love Exposure (2008), or the small army of oblivious high schoolers in his ultra-violent Tag (2015). Such an obsession seemingly made him a perfect choice for the “Roman Porno Reboot Project” of Japanese movie studio Nikkatsu, an ambitious series of five movies commissioned by the legendary studio to re-start the eponymous franchise of softcore pornos that reigned supreme in Japan’s domestic market in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nikkatsu’s strategy of hiring vivacious, experimental directors and giving them extreme creative freedom in exchange for meeting specified quotas of nude or sex scenes reenergized the studio. Popular with audiences, these films were stylistically audacious and highly fetishistic, zeroing in on specific sexual kinks like schoolgirls. Imagine Nikkatsu’s surprise when Sono’s contribution to the Reboot Project would end up being aggressively unsexy. Appropriately titled Antiporno, the film is almost Brechtian in its determination to fluster and confound its audience by stripping away successive layers of fantasy until all that’s left is the cankerous soul of sex industry exploitation. It was a stroke of bawdy genius.
Antiporno can best be described as a porno-inside-a-porno. The film begins with Kyoko—played by recent Sono regular and ex-Japanese idol Ami Tomite—a disillusioned novelist who has cloistered herself away in a bizarre studio as she struggles to conceive her next project. The studio is something ripped straight from the fever dream set-design of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964): a conglomeration of adjacent, wall-less rooms each painted a single dazzling color. As Kyoko languishes in an existential malaise while stripped of everything but her panties, she spends much of her time pissing, shitting, and vomiting into a toilet next to her bed. (Not once is it ever flushed, leaving the audience to wonder in incredulous horror what that porno set must smell like to the characters.) Eventually, her soft-spoken manager Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) arrives, announcing that Kyoko has an interview with an infamous magazine editor and an even more infamous fashion photographer. Balking at the news, Kyoko subjects Noriko to a series of sadistic humiliations, forcing her to walk around like a dog and beg to be made a whore. Throughout, Kyoko descends further and further into a maenadian mania, convulsing into a frenzied nervous breakdown as the pressures to create art bear down on her. When the editor and photographer finally arrive, the sex games worsen to the point where she orders one of the photographer’s lesbian assistants to rape Noriko.
At which point Kyoko breaks character, runs to the toilet, and vomits again. “Cut!” a loud voice shouts from off-camera. The camera pans to the side of the set, revealing a disgruntled film crew. It turns out this whole time we’ve been watching the filming of a porno. We learn that not only is Kyoko an actress, but this is her debut performance. Enraged with her unprofessionalism in ruining the take, the crew berates Kyoko the actress (the porn stars all share names with their onscreen characters), insulting and mocking her as worthless. Then Noriko the actress sheds her docile, submissive persona and starts abusing Kyoko, forcing her to re-enact in real-life the simulated tortures and humiliations forced upon her manager character in the film. Slowly Kyoko’s backstory unspools before us in series of bizarre asides, hallucinations, and flashbacks. It turns out Kyoko is an 18-year-old schoolgirl from an emotionally neglectful home who’s still reeling from the recent suicide of her beloved sister. In her confused grief, she associates her dead sister’s notorious sexual openness with virtue and decides to become an adult actress, but not before throwing her virginity away to a random passerby on the street. Unsurprisingly—at least for a Roman Porno—the passerby reacts to her entreaty by brutally raping her in a scene repeatedly flashed on the walls of Kyoko the character’s studio. Soon the different worlds of Kyoko the character and Kyoko the actress collide and morph together and we’re left wondering which is which.
Sono leaves us with several difficult but necessary observations, the least of which seems to suggest that the atmosphere of the Japanese adult industry is just as abusive and cruel as the material it produces. And it isn’t just the casting couch producers and directors who are monsters; the industry seems designed to create unfair competition between its performers, thereby turning them against each other. What’s more, through the blending of Kyoko the actress and Kyoko the character, Sono seems to suggest that there’s no difference between the sadomasochistic horrors portrayed in the film and the emotional horrors of her personal life.
All these creative decisions create an odd, disassociating effect not unlike the one felt in Nagisa Oshima’s classic In the Realm of the Senses (1976). We’re watching explicit sex, but the film is so detached from the action that it’s only sporadically titillating. And the few genuinely erotic moments are spiked by Sono who, in the throes of his characters’ passions, will cut to someone vomiting or to a flashback of “real life” sexual trauma. It is chaotic, disturbing, grotesque. It is, quite literally, the antiporno promised by the title, daring its audience to enjoy the sex at the expense of its characters. Sono could have easily made a simple Roman Porno. But he did something more. He turned the entire genre on its head, letting its skirt fall to its knees so we can see all its dirty secrets.