ANTIPORNO: The Ghosts of Fame & Shame
In 2016, the Japanese film studio Nikkatsu reached out to five directors to each make a film to fall under the Roman Porno label that had been active from 1971 until 1988. The Roman Porno line was a series of low budget softcore films, part of the overall “Pink film” genre that could be likened to the sexploitation and “roughie” genres of American exploitation. The Roman Porno series was a popular mainstay within the pink industry, though the industry as a whole barely survived the loosening of laws regarding pornography which killed the Roman Porno. While Jasper Sharp’s Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema shows the genre to be more politically minded than one would expect, it was still a horribly exploitative industry. Director Sion Sono uses his entry in the revival, Antiporno (2016), to shed a light on the sexual politics being exploited by the industry and how the ghosts of fame and shame live on within and through film.
In sitting down to write about Antiporno there are some decisions that have to be made. An essay on the film can be laid out to follow the order of events sequentially but in so doing I fear it will miss out on the importance of dichotomies that the film plays with. In particular I want to explore how the film plays with fiction/fantasy in regards to fame, the topic of consent/abuse, and how patriarchal power is at play throughout. Antiporno is divided into two halves, with the first half itself being divided in two, and an understanding of these divisions is required going forward. The first part focuses on Kyōko (Ami Tomite), an accomplished author and self proclaimed whore. Kyōko’s assistant, Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui), arrives and participates in a BDSM power exchange relationship with Kyōko as her master. A photographer, a journalist, and two assistants arrive to interview Kyōko and enjoy her sexual humiliation of Noriko. The second part begins when a director yells “cut,” and we learn that what we have been seeing is the production of a movie. Noriko calls Kyōko a “cunt” and abuses her physically. The director likewise insults, abuses and sexually harasses the younger actress. Before filming the next take, Noriko forces Kyōko to lick her legs to the delight of the crew. Distressed during the take, Kyōko stumbles with her lines and is abused until the director yells, “cut.” Exhausted and humiliated, Kyōko collapses against a wall and closes her eyes. She opens them to reveal she is now in the third and final part of the movie, where time and space collapse in upon themselves.
When the film begins we are in Kyōko’s apartment, the walls, ceiling and floor all painted a vibrant yellow (except for the washroom which is entirely red). An inner monologue reveals a sense of shame and tells us that it is her birthday, though no one cares. Proving the point, Noriko arrives to read Kyōko her appointments for the day and there is no mention of any celebrations nor any “happy birthday.” This is the first clue that points to a break within the diegesis we are seeing and the true diegesis of the movie, Antiporno, though at this point, we are completely unaware. Our second clue is a character, a woman dressed all in white and playing the piano, that Kyōko interacts with. Who is this character? Who is she to Kyōko? It’s unaddressed in this section of the film but made clear later on that it’s her sister. Her presence here, and Kyōko’s shock at having found her, are made of particular import when we discover more about her later on. Also of importance is the film that Kyōko watches before her assistant arrives: a young man and woman fucking in the woods. Kyōko screams at the man to fuck her harder until she vomits.
Upon the arrival of Noriko, the film enters true exploitation territory. Proud to be a whore, Kyōko demands to know if Noriko is a whore herself. She is not, but says that she wants to be. Kyōko demands that she strip naked, get on all fours, and bark like a dog. Delighted, Kyōko plays with her new pet until guests arrive. The journalist and the photographer arrive wearing expensive and flamboyant costumes, clear signifiers of their wealth. Following behind the wealthy women is a lesbian couple, their assistants, dressed in costumes evoking Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange (1971). Brightly colored dildos protrude from the front of the assistants’ pants, fitting the theme of Kyōko’s speech to the journalist that the world of men is to be scorned. In this way the film presents its female characters as having stolen patchiarchical power by adapting the phallic form.
While preparing her makeup for the photoshoot, Kyōko demands that Noriko slash her wrist so that her blood can be used as blush. Noriko listens, slashes her wrist, and Kyōko decrees her blood as that of a weak dog. She then demands that Noriko be raped by the assistants, which delights her company. In this way the film shows the rich feeding on the blood of the lower class, only to make a show of waste – the blood of the poor means nothing to the rich and famous, and their body’s penetration and destruction is the only thing that matters.
At this point a voice calls “Cut!” and reality pulls itself apart: we are not witnessing a reality of an illusion of a reality being filmed. Noriko immediately starts laughing, clearly angry and upset as the director walks over to Kyōko, who’s body language has already folded in on itself – from strong, in control, to weak and powerless. The director smacks her, talks trash about her. Noriko yells over to her to demand she refer to the director as “Sir.” Behind the stage, the director grills Kyōko on whether not she is a virgin before he bends her over a pile of equipment in a mock sex act to see if she can portray pleasure. She attempts to moan but it makes her vomit again, revealing her earlier projections to be reflective of the actress Kyōko, not the character Kyōko. Upon returning to the stage to prepare for the next take, Noriko demands that Kyōko lick her legs, the crew getting excited and telling her to do it. In the reality of the filmmaking Noriko presents herself as the master in a BDSM relationship in which Kyōko wants no part. The alluring sexuality of the first part, promising the whore as divine and the submissive as priestess, is now corrupted while fed back through the same lens: the rich and famous actress is able to physically, mentally and sexually abuse the unknown actress.
Kyōko’s abuse at the hands of the director and the uncaring all-male crew – not only calling for it but clearly ignoring and casting shame on her for her distress – serve as a commentary of the production methods of earlier Roman Porno films. But truly disgusting is not just the abuse in the moment on her body and mind but the abuse that is being perpetrated by the production as a whole. The (anti)-feminist hero that Kyōko plays within the film is one that has been crafted by men, for the viewing pleasure of men. In this way the comments of Susannah B. MIntz, speaking of television in her essay “In a Word: Baywatch,” are entirely appropriate when she writes that “television nonetheless demonstrates the way misogyny can go underground, asserting its force through less visible – and therefore more difficult to combat –avenues. This makes television [or exploitation film] an enormously effective tool with which to sustain patriarchal ideology.” Kyōko is not only exploited in the production of the film but by the film itself, which brings us into the third section of the film.
As Kyōko closes her eyes after a particular hard take, she opens them again to reveal that she is surrounded by a room full of young girls. They tell her it’s okay and that she can start again. We cut into a black and white flashback. The young girls are in the woods surrounding the couple making love, the youngest one walks towards them with a knife.
Kyōko awakens in the movie that was being filmed. The shots are similar, and it evokes a feeling of Groundhog Day (1993) in the repetition. However it is not the same. Kyōko awakens but we are no longer with the real Kyōko, though this is never directly spoken. Instead the film begins to splinter and collapse in on itself, and the character that now follow is not Kyōko the actress that lived and breathed, nor Kyōko the character she played in the film. The Kyōko that we are with now is a ghost, a fragment stuck in time. She is the culmination of everything Kyōko the actress was when she took the role and nothing else. As she will say, she is doomed to be stuck in this moment in time. She will never age, never escape, and her wounds are ready to reopen anytime you press play.
This awakening gives us a truer understanding of Kyōko by mixing stylistic flashback sequences into the story, cutting back and forth through time and space from the Kyōko in the now and the Kyōko that was. But the film won’t be content there, as we will skip between versions of reality which blur the true events … though perhaps that is the purpose, as Kyōko will allude to.
In flashback, a young Kyōko and her sister sit at the dinner table across from their parents. Kyōko starts an awkward conversation about sex reveals that her father and step-mother are constantly fucking throughout the house, their daughters having peeped on them many times, yet within conversation they approach sex as a negative and vile thing, thus confusing the young Kyōko’s relationship with her own sexuality. In a moment of silence her sister speaks, tells her parents that she wants to die. The parents ignore her cry for help. The sister steps from the table into the next room where a young high school boy sits, waiting for her. She holds a knife out to him and asks him to kill her. With much reluctance he does.
Sometime after the death, Kyōko comes home, interrupting her parents lovemaking on the upstairs balcony, and announces that she got accepted into a movie. A dirty movie, and she’s already shot her sex scene. Her father rages at her and she looks to her stepmother for help, she’s a woman, too, damnit. Her stepmother fails to react and Kyōko tries to initiate sex with her father. She hallucinates a small, all-female film crew following her and runs out of the house calling for them to follow. She finds a random dude on the street, the young man from the video of the couple in the woods. She asks him if he’ll take her virginity, he consents and takes her to the clearing in the woods. When he tells her to be gentle, he replies that he’ll rape her and begins to assault her. She’s able to convince him to grind to orgasm and is able to escape without being physically harmed. However, the psychological wounds run deep—every time she thinks about sex, she sees either her assault in the woods or her parents’ lovemaking, hence the vomiting. The female camera crew that was filming is gone and a lone camera sits, filming the empty woods.
The film that she shows people is supposed to be when she lost her virginity but our first time seeing it has to be a hallucination of Kyōko’s. The second time we see it we are within the world of the movie Kyōko’s trapped in and it is empty, as it continues to remain. The film is empty in the later portions because Kyōko’s rapist never physically penetrated her. She has experienced sexual assault, has been raped, and yet is still a virgin physically and emotionally. But she played the role of a whore within the film and therefore she must be a whore. But she is neither, she is trapped in that area between virgin and whore. She has been “used,” and thus can not be pure – in fact, we know she considers herself to be changed at the moment, we have seen her younger self approaching with the killing knife meant for her innocence earlier in black and white. But she is not a whore, giving to anyone that asks, as she had thought she might be. She vocalizes her wish to be a man, so that she could kill them all; that she must be a man first speaks to just how powerless she feels in her station both as a woman and as an unwanted woman within patriarchal society. She is stuck in a liminal space of undesirability within patriarchal society that will follow her forever – the her we follow now, the ghost version of her, and Kyōko the actress.
The film jumps back in time to show us Kyōko’s audition. The director doesn’t think she will be able to play the role of whore but she insists that she came to be in a Roman Porno so that she could be a whore and be around lots of sex. She is asked to strip nude and complies without hesitation. The film then enters into a mixing of realities. We jump back into what appears to be the movie, but this time Kyōko is in the role of Noriko and Noriko is playing the famous artist and writer, known for being a whore. It is Kyōko begging to be turned into a whore and forced onto all fours to take the role of a dog. While this scene plays out much as it appears to have been scripted in our first time seeing it, the roles and reversed and the question of which reality is the true reality is unclear. It’s further blurred as the film cuts to Kyōko, alone in the same room, dressed as she was in the start of the film and dancing while reading from the screenplay. The door rings, the expected parties arrive but suddenly Kyōko breaks from the screenplay and insults Noriko, who proceeds to give the (male endorsed, anti) feminist speech, tears in her eyes as she sells lies to the viewing public.
As these scenes play out, Kyōko at one point begins to panic because she can’t find her sister here. Early, when asked by the director at the rehearsal to look into a box (presumably empty) and tell him her saddest memory, she looks in the box and sees her parents having sex and says her sister’s death. Kyōko’s father spends all of his time sleeping with her stepmother, a way of dealing with the grief from the death of her mother. In taking on a role in a Roman Porno film, she is rebelling against her father’s two-faced relationship with sex and striving to reestablish contact with her sister but finding no answer there, only the exploitation and hell that she lived through.
The film cuts to Kyōko sitting at a table, alone. She says what the movie is about, reiterates how it is the tale of a girl driven to a moment … and that everything that lead up to that moment all amounts to shit. A cake is brought out, Kyōko slams her head into it and begins to throw it around. Paint falls from the ceilings, Kyōko basking in the pure filth – not a single goddamn soul that watched the Roman Porno movie she was in gave a second thought about the reality that brought her there to that moment. The only thing that matters is a moment in time caught on camera, not a reality – as she’s playing a character – but a reality to those that see. She is famous for one thing, being a whore, something that she isn’t and that image keeps her trapped in the film as the paints mix together to the color of shit and her parents suddenly appear, fucking in the middle of the mess. Kyōko looks at the camera and screams, cries, crawls and begs for an exit, a way out of the fame that was a mistake she can’t escape.
By contrasting the fiction of the film-within-a-film with the production process, Antiporno examines how the fame image – in this case the role that Kyōko played but is fitting of any fame image such as a musician, artist or poet – is one that is manufactured. The actor is particularly susceptible to this manufactured fame image due to the factory-like production practices of the film industry. Further, the contrast of the famous actress with Kyōko reveals the way in which the famous are allowed to feed off, even physically abuse, the non-famous. Kyōko’s biggest sin is not her inability to perfect her scene but that she is a nobody in the lead role: her lack of fame makes her undeserving of what she has, Noriko’s attacks a reminder of her status. Antiporno is uninterested in exploring whether or not Kyōko finds fame or changes her status, instead focusing on the fame image she acquires through the film and the liminal space it puts her into. In this way Antiporno proves itself uninterested in the stories of those actors and actresses that profited from the Roman Porno – Noriko – and instead wants to focus on the negative ramifications these films have had on lives. Not every life was ruined, those whose personal values fit with their fame image are able to live fine, but for Kyōko she is doomed to be haunted by a fame image that not only doesn’t represent her but rather represents the lowest point in her life.
Long after Kyōko’s story is forgotten, when all the reasons that brought her to where she was are truly worth as little as the shit she claims, her fame image will live on – an (anti)-feminist manifesto owned, controlled and enjoyed by the male society that has forever trapped her. In this way Antiporno shows fame to as much of a lie as the film-within-a-film itself is. Fame and film: both are masks and both put the wearer at risk of never being able to remove them, as much a curse as the masks from Demons (1985) or Onibaba (1964). Writing in Horror after 9/11, Aviva Briefel writes that “to deny its [film’s] exceptionality would entail accepting its paradoxical status as a consumer product that may sustain (willing or not) the very structures it critiques. And that would be a very scary thing indeed.” Antiporno examines that paradoxical status and reveals just how scary it is, indeed.
Zack Long is the editor-in-chief of Scriptophobic.ca (@Scriptophobics), a site dedicated to helping genre writers improve their craft, where he also hosts the Fade to Zack podcast. When he isn’t researching film, studying screenplays, or helping writers, Zack can be found meditating, studying neuroscience and psychology and writing obsessively. In his spare time he is a lover of cats and a muppet of a man.