“Charming sex, you will be free: just as men do, you shall enjoy all the pleasures that Nature makes your duty, do not withold yourselves from one. Must the more divine half of mankind be kept in chains by the others? Ah, break those bonds: nature wills it.” – Marquis de Sade
About a year ago, Japan’s Nikkatsu studios decided to return to their softcore glory days with a reboot of their popular Roman Porno–or pink film–series of the 1970’s and 80’s. The films are known for being professionally produced (although the narratives might not be the most coherent), usually between 70 and 80 minutes long, with sex scenes occurring every 10 to 15 minutes. So far I have watched only two of the five reboot films. Akihito Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (2016), about a reclusive man who experiences persistent encounters with a nymphomaniacal young woman, is a bit ridiculous but continually entertaining. Antiporno (2016) by Sion Sono, however, decides to go full-on art film as much as softcore porn, simultaneously critiquing the genre it pays homage to and the greater cultural issues surrounding gender and sexuality. Sono’s film does what many Roman Pornos of years past attempted to do: inject a bawdy onscreen romp with something mainstream industry cinema constantly suppresses–subversive politics.
As Jasper Sharp writes in Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex in Cinema, “With the main guideline being to deliver a set number of sex or nude scenes within a running time that became standardized in the ‘70’s to roughly an hour, they [Roman Pornos] can offer their makers the liberty to explore ideas, themes, and stylistic avenues cut off from higher-budgeted mainstream productions.” (10) One could say that Sion Sono takes this to heart in making Antiporno, or perhaps Nikkatsu did a good job hiring a director for the reboot that already has quite a bit of experience with critical cinematic examinations of sexuality. For example his four hour film Love Exposure (2008) is about a young man who strives to become the greatest up skirt, voyeuristic photographer of all time, something that sounds negatively perverse. In actuality the film is completely absurd and impossible to take seriously. Sono makes sure to heavily criticize the hypocrisy of Christianity and all religions in the process. Antiporno succeeds more than Love Exposure, in that it gets straight to the point, repeats it, and finishes with a brief running time. It provides what viewers need succinctly and in a manner so direct it risks incomprehensibility in its simplicity. Antiporno is about the aggressive and deceitful landscape that the patriarchy has put into place, especially in context to the difficulties women have in navigating this space–which is to say virtually all spaces.
The film begins with our protagonist Kyoko (Ami Tomite) sleeping face down on a bed, her panties lowered to around her knees, wearing nothing else. She soon awakes groggily, having a rambling conversation with herself, and her imagined sister. Much of the dialog and on screen imagery has to do with the body, particularly the female body and abjection as Kyoko states things like, “Pissing and shitting are important. All I did was vomit.” Eventually her personal assistant (as Kyoko is a famous painter and writer) Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) arrives to be subjected to verbal and physical abuse by the former. “Yes, I’d like to be a whore,” Noriko replies to Kyoko’s question, yet being a whore in this environment is contextualized so as to be a thing of honor. Some BDSM activity begins, involving a leash, belt-whipping, and barking like a dog. Soon after, a group of reporters and photographers arrive–the two queer photo assistants wearing strap on dildos. Noriko is abused by all of the new guests. About a half hour into the film someone yells “Cut!” We realize that the occurrences are all part of a film within the film. The actress playing Noriko actually has more power and dominance than Kyoko. Power exchanges continue for the rest of the film, which becomes repetitive, and we see Kyoko in relation to her parents as well, although the reality of their depicted relationship is never confirmed. A general refrain is repeated by many of the characters throughout, along the lines of, “Freedom torments this nation’s women… No woman in this nation can master freedom!”
The preoccupation with violent sexuality, whore-dom, self-reflexion, and excess transport Antiporno to the realm analysed by Angela Carter in her brilliant work The Sadeian Woman (alternately sub-titled “And the Ideology of Pornography” and “An Exercise in Cultural History”), which examines the state of contemporary womanhood in context to work by the Marquis de Sade. To quote Carter at length:
“The moral pornographer would be an artist who uses pornographic material as part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders, and projects a model of the way such a world might work. A moral pornographer might use pornography as a critique of current relations between the sexes. His business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation, through the infinite modulations of the sexual act, of the real relations of man and his kind. Such a pornographer would not be the enemy of women, perhaps because he might begin to penetrate to the heart of contempt for women that distorts our culture even as he entered the realms of true obscenity as he describes it.” (22)
Antiporno is one of the most relatable films in recent time to equate with Carter’s hypothetical concept of the moral pornographer. Right from the title, it is understood that the “anti” implies something that is the opposite or not-porno. The film does not give us prim, proper, or prudish characters covering up their whole bodies as the antithesis of porn, but rather a world that still communicates in the same audiovisual language–nudity, violence, dirty-talking characters–but reaches different ends. Sion Sono conjures a potentially pornographic space but fills it intermittently with political ideology that confronts the traditional gatekeepers–which is to say men–of erotica and culture at large. This infusion of politics into a softcore film–which incidentally follows the fuck-interlude-fuck-interlude formula of Roman Porno–is also directly reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade’s own work. For example, his 1795 classic Philosophy in the Boudoir includes the famous manifesto “Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans,” in which he attacks French Revolution-era religion. Kyoko of Antiporno can very much join the list of Sadeian women that began with Juliette and Justine.
The Brechtian landscape of the film also does much to disassociate the world of Antiporno with reality. The over-the-top acting and stage-like, bright yellow set help to create a world of obvious fantasy. Kyoko’s pop art-adjacent paintings also imply a sense of postmodern, hyper-reality. Once the director yells “Cut!” the audience goes deeper into the self-reflexive, self-critical nature of the film (within a film). Power-dynamics change at the shouting of this word, and cinema–both pornographic and “legitimate”–are brought into question as viable messengers of sexuality, freedom, and control.
We see the director within the film acting out elements of a sex scene with an unnerved Kyoko, rubbing his crotch up against her ass, a moment so typically telling of the current cultural moment involving men in the film industry and beyond abusing their power to sometimes intentionally torture women. The fact that this moment seems banal and not outrageous is a testament to the world in which we live. Thoughts become bleak when we realize that the conditions hyperbolized in the world of Sade, well over 200 years ago, continue to dominate. As Carter writes, “Sade describes the condition of women in the genre of pornography of sexual violence but believed it would only be through the medium of sexual violence that women might heal themselves of their socially inflicted scars, in a praxis of destruction and sacrilege.” (29) This chaos is seen at the end of Antiporno, as Kyoko plants her face in the middle of a cake and multi-colored paint rains down from above. She screams,”1. This nation’s men are shit! 2. The freedom they created is shit! 3. The world they dream of is shit! “ She is specifically calling out Japan, in a not-so-veiled notion held by Sono, but of course this anger appears reasonable when directed at almost all points on the globe. Antiporno could be considered an absurdist comedy in some ways, but the extremely obvious message is confrontational and entirely serious.
With The Sadeian Woman Angela Carter has created a complex mode of film, literature, and art criticism in which pornography can exist as a potentially destabilizing force. Instead of falling victim to the violent thrusts of dominant culture, marginalized people can use violence of a similar ilk to fight back. While some other film criticism on the fields of gender and sexuality use sadism and masochism as states of condemnation, Carter positions them as points to begin from in a journey of resistance. She states, “the more pornographic writing acquires the techniques of real literature, of real art, the more deeply subversive it is likely to be in that the more likely it is to affect the reader’s perceptions of the world.” (21) With Antiporno, Sion Sono does an excellent job of fusing fantasy and sexuality with art film aesthetics that suggest new ways of thinking about this kind of content, rather than acquiescing to mere arousal dictated by dominant structures.
Sharp, Jasper. Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. Surrey: FAB Press, 2008.
Carter, Angela. The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago, 1979.