Anti-Porno: A Radical Cinematic Voice of Today

Anti-Porno: A Radical Cinematic Voice of Today

Note: Spoilers Below.

It’s a common critical exercise to use the latest film of an auteur to reprise his work, or to treat it as the apex in his filmography, just because it highlights his lifetime obsessions and themes. I don’t want to fall into this trap, yet Sion Sono’s latest film, Anti-Porno, is so different from all his earlier work that it begs some reflection on his filmography.

Sono’s first forays into art were painting, poetry and performative public acts. These eventually found their place in his films, especially in his short, I Am Sion Sono!! (1985). The strength of Sono’s voice comes through his clever camera positioning, shaken imagery to signal chaos, and in the strained acting. The whole is a scream in a void, as Sono shouts his poetry in the crowded streets. The short, with its big emotions, set a precedent for Sono’s entire filmography, and has earned him a comparison to John Cassavetes, one of the few American directors he admires.

Anti-porno harks back to Sono’s artistic expressions from his youth, such as performance art and especially painting, to which Sono has recently returned, as seen in the documentary The Sion Sono 2016, by Arata Ôshima, that documents Sono’s preparations for an exhibition. Sono has explored using protest banners as an art form, with written kanjis (Chinese characters), and political messages painted with broad strokes—all as if to recapture his earlier, youthful screams.

A similar combination of art and protest can be seen in Anti-Porno, which first establishes some rules and then, just as briskly, breaks them. Along with The Whispering Star (2015), it is among Sono’s most obscure films. Kyoko, played by Ami Tomite, is a young prodigy, who paints characters that she will later use in her novels. She is preparing for a big day of interviews and photo shoots, but has something else on her mind: she ponders the nature of being a “slut.” Her divagations are spliced with flashbacks of how she lost her virginity to a random man in the woods. Kyoko is over-sexualized, and sex is the most important thing in her life. She even uses it as a tool to denigrate and torture her assistant Noriko, played by Mariko Tsutsui. Yet Kyoko’s mental torment is evident, especially when she gets a journalist’s aid to penetrate Noriko with a strap-on, just to show her how she can become a “bitch.”

When Kyoko becomes momentarily stumped, after reflecting on the place of women in Japanese society, we hear a man yell out, ‘Cut!’ Suddenly we realize that what we have seen thus far is a porn film that’s being shot with the newbie actress, Kyoko, who lied about her age to star in the porn industry. Noriko, the senior actress, complains about the amateur nature of the production, and the two women’s roles in this “real life” moment are reversed. The film ends with Kyoko covered in paint and screaming joyfully, as she gets more and more splattered with brilliant colors, with the walls and floors covered by the canvases that reinforce her earlier angry speeches. Ultimately, what is real and what is not doesn’t matter nearly as much as the visual or the political force of the film’s vignettes.

Sono may be the most talented director working today. He has certainly become one of the most prolific. He has worked for major Japanese studios, such as Sony Nikkatsu, yet hasn’t blended into the system as much as used it as a canvas for his repressed thoughts. He has turned his work “for hire” into a visual statement—he opens his films with a handwritten note, “A Sono Sion Film”, as any auteur might. With a few exceptions, his themes don’t overlap, yet all his films feel his, because of his manic energy and approach to actors, whom he lets express raw emotions without restraint.

Anti-Porno has been shrouded in controversy, as part of the Nikkatsu Roman Porno Reboot, a system in which the company has five directors work with certain restrictions: a sex scene every ten minutes, one week of shooting, and a fixed budget for each production. Beyond that, a director exercises “complete freedom”—Sono turns this ironic notion of freedom into a political statement, making it the film’s central theme, and connecting it to the struggle of modern feminism in Japan, and, at the same time, to the porn industry. The glee with which Kyoko tells her father what kind of film she’s acting in (“a sex scene every ten minutes” she yells with a big smile), speaks about Sono ‘s rebel nature, as a filmmaker who never strays from his convictions, regardless of what type of film he happens to be making.

Anti-Porno is unique whichever context you view it in—Roman Porno Reboot, Japanese Cinema or world cinema. The film’s climax is controlled yet bizarre, with editing that features abrupt cuts. The final imagery ranges from a group of naked women surrounded by political statements on the walls to the overhead shot of a couple having sex, while buckets of brightly colored paint fall on them constantly, all this with classical music playing, louder and louder. The best comparison is perhaps to Véra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), one of the most radical films of its time, with both a political stance and a vision of women’s lives and their relation to art. No film this year comes as close to Daisies as Anti-Porno, in terms of visual experimentation, editing or body politics.

About The Author

Jaime Grijalba

Grijalba is a Chilean filmmaker and critic, and a regular contributor to Kinoscope, Brooklyn Magazine, and film sites, MUBI and Conlosojosabiertos. He writes primarily about Latin American cinema and festival experiences around the globe, both in English and Spanish.

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