Tasked with contributing to Nikkatsu’s “Roman Porno Reboot Project” — a salute to the studio’s prolific run of sometimes-adventurous sexploitation features in the 1970s and ’80s — culty latterday director Sion Sono delivers a critique of the genre that’s very tricky in structure, yet in gist as blunt as its title. “Antiporno” has plenty of nudity and (non-graphic) sexual content. Nonetheless, viewers seeking titillation are much less likely to be satisfied than those who’ll appreciate this surreal, aesthetically bold gizmo as the latest left-turn in its creator’s idiosyncratic career.
On vainglorious display in the unnatural habitat of her bright-yellow loft apartment, Kyoto (Ami Tomite) is a writer/artist who acts and is treated more like a spoiled pop star. A typical day full of interviews, photo shoots, TV appearances and meetings begins as she’s woken by older personal assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui). She treats the latter with an abusive contempt that often spills into the realm of stock S&M fetish play, complete with “Bark like a dog!” episodes. The arrival of various fawning acolytes and mass-media enablers only heightens Kyoto’s bratty excesses. At the same time, however, she has moments of panicked self-doubt, as well as presumably delusional communication with a dead sister (also Tstusui) who’s in “heaven.” Trapped in her celebrity, Kyoto is in another, soul-destroying place entirely, from which there’s no apparent escape.
Yet at the half-hour mark, this repetitive upscale nightmare is jarred by “Cut!,” revealing that our protagonists are simply performers on a set where their dynamic is flipped — the actress playing Noriko mercilessly belittles “Kyoto,” who may simply be an inexperienced thespian having a rough time on her “big break.” Or perhaps she’s the personification of all showbiz womankind, living out a kind of pinku “No Exit” (or “Groundhog Day”) in which sex is both an elusive goal and a shameful burden.
Eventually Kyoto’s looping reality takes her back to the inevitable schoolgirl days (and uniform), when her parents instilled a sense of deep erotic shame while hypocritically, loudly taking every possible opportunity to enjoy intercourse. The teen’s rebellion took the form of a desperate audition for a sex film at age 18. Notions of suicide and incest also surface amid conflicted feelings that scenarist Sono doesn’t exactly soft-pedal. “I’m a virgin, but a whore … a whore, but a virgin. I must be one or the other!” our heroine shrills at one point, while elsewhere she reveals his larger thesis by exclaiming, “No woman in this nation can master freedom!”
Strip away all its Chinese-box toyings with time, reality and identity, and “Antiporno” is a pretty simple articulation of the sexually objectified female as victim. It doesn’t seem even a theoretical possibility that Kyoto might learn to own her sexuality, let alone the genre she’s stuck in. For all its eventual sympathy for her plight (however cartoonishly portrayed), the movie nevertheless can’t begin to shake off its resolutely male perspective; there’s no suggestion that women even have roles to choose from save innocent “virgin” and bitchy “whore” (or wannabe). That this is indeed a pervasive cultural/psychological issue is touched upon, but never really explored.
Still, if Sono doesn’t really have as much to say as his serpentine scenario implies, he nonetheless lays on a compelling array of aesthetic tactics and jarring tonal shifts that lend the film at least a bold sheen of anarchy and subversion. The garish primary colors of production (Takasbhi Matsuzuka) and costume (Kazuhiro Sawataishi) design make the most striking impression. Maki Ito’s often elaborate widescreen camera choreography, and a soundtrack largely dependent on ironically deployed standard classical-music themes, also make assertive contributions.
Particularly once the film gets past its often grating, monotonous and scatologically fixated first section, there are some moments of delightful invention. Most notable are a flashback family dinner that turns serenely obscene, and some aerial shots of the heroine writhing in a puddle of splatter-paint psychedelia à la Ann-Margret in “The Swinger.” The two lead thesps, both recent Sono regulars, jump through a lot of conceptual hoops with game aplomb.
Despite hewing to the slender run time of most peak-era Japanese sexploitation films (including Nikkatsu’s better-produced “Roman Pornos”), the film’s mix of pretension and caricature makes it seem plenty long enough — even by the standards of a director not averse to extreme length, as in 2008’s variably four-to-six-hour “Love Exposure.” Self-conscious shock value, existential panic lite and flamboyant objet d’art packaging make for a sum experience that can be as fatiguing as it is novel. Yet “Antiporno” is one of those films that, if glimpsed in a club or gallery setting sans sound or subtitles, might look like a masterpiece. The less you try to fathom their rather shallow depths, the more its arresting pop-art surfaces appear to mean.