Antiporno blends feminism with sexploitation, creating a dreamy nightmare that only Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud could wrap their heads around. Branding women as “freedom’s slaves”, Antiporno magnifies the inconsistencies in man’s version of woman for a laugh, cry and sigh of relief. Rachael Sampson takes us through Sion Sono’s chaotic yet cathartic commentary.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if The Love Witch fucked Gaspar Noé? It might look something like Antiporno. Sion Sono’s 2016 Japanese Roman porno revival movie opens up the porn model and spreads it wide shamelessly, revealing the inner workings and anxieties of women as they perform male fantasy in a dreamlike, liminal space. The overbearing message of women being “freedom’s slaves” is a painfully powerful reminder of a female reality, however its surrealist chaos unexpectedly transforms into catharsis as it satirises the male gaze through feminist critique in a hyper-sexualised environment. Antiporno’s patchwork narrative asks what it means to be man’s version of woman (the virgin, whore and mother), and emphasises the scrutiny women fall under when they give into one and not the other two. It’s a triple-edged sword that cannot be defeated.
Joyful and vibrant in set and tone, mimicking the juvenile aura of teenage protagonist Kyōko (Ami Tomite) while sugar-coating its perverse and carnal core for intriguing juxtaposition, Antiporno follows Kyōko around her home/art studio/film set as she lives out a topsy-turvy Groundhog Day-type existence. She declares to be a whore, while her assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) plays her binary opposite, the innocent virgin. Kyōko demands Noriko walks on all fours for her, barks for her and bleeds for her. “It’s not authentic without real blood,” she shouts, as she smears Noriko’s blood on her cheeks just as they did for makeup in ancient Asia to show health, wealth and status.
Kyōko pits Noriko against other women and then demands she be raped while a lizard trapped inside a bottle watches on – a metaphor for women being deemed lost causes; outgrowing their freedom as they chase desirability and validation. The narrative soon flips on its head as the fourth wall is broken, revealing a director and film crew furious with Kyōko’s inauthentic performance. The power dynamics switch, as Noriko strikes her across the face in frustration. Each time the story takes an obscure gear shift, it never ceases to reiterate that “men control [women], and male society overwhelms them. It exhausts them”. Kyōko attempts to regain her balance, but she is soon thrown into disarray once more as the men behind the cameras pull the strings.
Antiporno overdramatises and parodies the patriarchal agenda, but this hyper-aware commentary ironically has a man at the helm. While that’s deeply meta, the hypocrisy is not lost on us. Male director Sono speaks for women in pornography and womanhood, and to keep the work in tone with a Roman porno, sex must be the anchor, meaning he’s playing into the very issue he’s subverting. A Roman porno is a subgenre of pink film: Japanese sexploitation films from the ‘60s and ‘70s (America was having its Deep Throat awakening in the same time). A Roman porno requires a minimum of four sex scenes per hour, but aside from that, a filmmaker can be as traditional or obscure as they want. The story is not required to make total sense – hence the incoherence of Antiporno.
Sono weaves a mix of consensual and non-consensual sex scenes through the story, as Kyōko attempts to be accepted by male-driven society and viewed as a whore instead of a virgin – which diverts her from the pure/maternal path laid out by her family. This is an archaic paradox eloquently examined by Laura Dern’s character in 2019’s Marriage Story, who highlights that Christianity is founded on “Mary, the mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect; she’s a virgin who gives birth.” How can Kyōko follow this maternal path without sex? Her confusion bubbles as she fights to exist sexually for herself, which pushes her further away from the other two goal posts. The instances in which she does find strength to speak up and act out are bittersweet, for her motivations are fuelled by the desire to gratify men, emphasising even more that “no woman in this nation can master freedom” as her indoctrination is too far gone.
Catharsis isn’t something you could expect to find in Antiporno, but it invokes liberating feelings by pushing boundaries as Sono indulges in the taboo. Freud’s wet dream comes to life as Kyōko tries to sleep with her father, after comfortably discussing sex with him in detail. She cannot understand why he and her stepmother refute her dream of becoming a whore and fill her with shame about sex, when she can hear them going at it like rabbits every night. The discomfort Sono creates from these inappropriate and contradictory exchanges brings out the humour and ridiculousness of the double standards men themselves have put in place. They chase sex and satisfaction, from puberty to old age, but their daughters are not to indulge in such pleasures. As these inconsistencies are acknowledged, it provides feminist comfort as the explicit madness unravels into meaning.
The anger of these unwritten rules burst out of the oppressed women in Kyōko’s colourful home/prison cell, proclaiming, “I can’t even be a virgin, or a whore. I’m shit. I’m worthless. I want to be a man so I can kill all of them. Kill them. Kill them all!” Sono once again plays into another man-made role of the hysterical woman. Hysteria (meaning womb in ancient Greek) was a well-known diagnosis forced onto women in the 18th and 19th century if they showed signs on par with what would align with anxiety today. Other symptoms included infertility and not getting hitched... Sono nods at the past which creates empathy in the present, subsequently propelling women into a liberated future.
The bizarre, surrealist autonomy of Antiporno, which mirrors the inner turmoil of women fighting against the prescribed notions of femininity and womanhood, is far from a straightforward path; it twists and turns with obstacles and setbacks, which at times can feel very repetitive. The topic at hand is already complex and contradictory – heavily reiterated with Sono in the driver’s seat. So he throws all he has at the canvas, creating the most weirdly wonderful abstract portrait (quite literally, as Kyōko writhes around in paint before the credits roll) that captures the flaws and perplexities of gender expectation. Sono’s art offers the opportunity for a slither of cathartic relief, by recognising, exposing and mocking the shackles that are so tightly bound to the ankles of “freedom’s slaves”.
Rachael Sampson (@RachaelSampson_) is a London-based screenwriter and film critic from Yorkshire. In her spare time she can be found rewatching Girls, obsessing over Andrea Arnold’s filmography and guzzling chocolate milk.