Even within Sion Sono’s prolific, eccentric, often unhinged filmography, ANTI-PORNO sticks out as being one of his most outrageous films. Working with Nikkatsu Studios in Japan to revive their roman porno (softcore) series of films, ANTI-PORNO is about Kyoko, chic novelist, painter and fashion star, and her BDSM-tinged relationship with her assistant, Noriko (a character name familiar to Sono fans). It’s The Duke of Burgundy plus The Neon Demon, all filtered through Sono’s hyperkinetic, brightly colored lens. We’re just starting to understand the dynamics of Kyoko and Noriko’s relationship when... everything changes.
To reveal more than that would be to spoil a truly surprising film—there’s no gimmicky twist, but Sono keeps the story shifting against and away from the audience expectations, opening doors into memories, reconstructions, dreams, and just plain unreality. A fierce psychosexual battle rages between Kyoko and Noriko, one that each woman desperately wants to win. Along the way, Sono pokes fun at modern art, modern literature, modern filmmaking, and modern men (though there are precious few men in the film itself, the group of whom make up a Greek chorus).
The film is beautiful, and features a few instances of stunningly beautiful imagery: the way shadows flicker across lead actress Ami Tomite’s face, the thick orange and yellow light that billows through Kyoko’s apartment like fog, and a recurring motif of butterflies bring true beauty to the film. Tomite’s performance is responsible for much of the film’s success—Kyoko shuttles between unstoppable, kinetic force and haunted (literally), depressed shell, and Tomite absolutely sells it. It’s an unrelenting physical performance that is rarely seen on screen.
Those who aren’t a fan of Sono’s blatant, aggressive style likely won’t be won over by ANTI-PORNO; the characters are by and large abrasive, shrill people and there’s no linear plot to speak of. But for audiences who are looking for a brightly colored, troubling (there are scenes of self-harm and sexual violence), unpredictable view into the female id, ANTI-PORNO is it. Think of it as Bergman rolling around in neon paint.