Antiporno (アンチポルノ, Sion Sono, 2016)

Antiporno posterIf freedom exists in Japanese cinema, it exists only through sexual liberation. Only in this most private of acts can true individual will be expressed. Sion Sono, ever the contrarian, wants to ask if that very idea of “freedom” is in itself oppressive and he’s chosen to do that through his contribution to the Roman Porno Reboot Project in which five contemporary directors attempt to recreate Nikkatsu’s line in ‘70s soft-core pornography.

Opening in a room of bold primary colours – the sunlit walls of the yellow bedchamber and the garish red of the doorless bathroom, Sono homes in on the figure of Kyoko (Ami Tomite) who lies face down on a bed with her underwear around her ankles. She seems somehow broken and exhausted, staring into a piece of glass from a shattered mirror and making ominous statements to herself. Suddenly her mood changes, no longer the maudlin woman she transforms into the cute and quirky high schooler so beloved of certain genres of Japanese entertainment. When her assistant arrives, Kyoko delights in humiliating her, forcing Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) to crawl around on all fours wearing a dog collar and then ordering her to allow herself to be raped by an (all female) team of newspaper reporters.

So far, so Petra von Kant, but Sono doesn’t stop here. He shows us that this brightly coloured room is a stand-in for Kyoko’s fracturing psyche, a failed attempt to order her chaotic world. Someone shouts “cut” and we’re on a film set – roles are reversed, Kyoko is no longer in control. Her memories enter free fall as she flits between an awkward (possibly imagined) childhood, and her present predicament as, alternately, plaything and dominatrix.

The roots of Kyoko’s confusion stem back to the contradiction in her parents’, or really her society’s, attitude to sex. During a very strange family dinner, Kyoko and her younger sister have a frank discussion with mum and dad about male and female genitals and how they fit together. The language is pointed, but Kyoko’s father has very clear ideas about what is obscene and what isn’t – “Cocks” are what men stick into prostitutes and they’re obscene, but he has no sensible answer when pressed on how exactly “cocks” and “male genitalia” can be all that different. Her parents tell her sex is indecent and shameful while continuing to talk about their own sex life openly and refusing to shield their daughters from their obvious appetites. They offer no answer for this continuing paradox, only the affirmation that Kyoko’s desires are “indecent” and must be rejected.

Kyoko’s sister finds her freedom in another way, but Kyoko pursues hers through sexuality, looking for a connection in midst of true liberation. She wants to become a “whore” which the adult version of herself describes as “a woman so pure it breaks her own heart”, but what she’s looking for is the freedom which eludes her in her day to day living. Kyoko and later Noriko repeat the mantra that they will dismantle the “annoying freedoms which restrict me”,  lamenting that there is no freedom of speech in a country like Japan and that no woman has ever been able to attain their own freedom in a world entirely controlled by men. A protest against the renewal of the ANPO security treaty runs on the TV while Kyoko’s sister holds up a book of butterflies, exclaiming that all the free things fly away. The women of Japan, according to Noriko, praise free speech but reject their own freedom, forced to chase false liberations and endlessly allowing themselves to be manipulated by a culture they themselves willingly create.

The fly away butterflies hit the ceiling, and Kyoko’s captive lizard cannot escape its bottle. Sono seems to suggest that there is no true freedom, that the very idea of “true freedom” as mediated through the idea of sexual liberation is itself another fallacy used to manipulate women into doing what men want. Kyoko ends up in a “Roman Porno” to empower herself, but is disempowered by it – rendered an anonymous object trapped inside an entirely different kind of tube. Blinded by colours and memory she searches for an escape but finds none, groping for the mechanism to set herself free from the delusion of liberation but grasping only empty air.


Antiporno is available to stream in the UK via Mubi until 8th January and will be released on blu-ray by Third Window Films in April 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Akihiko Shiota, 2016)

wet woman in the wind poster largeBack in the early ‘70s, Nikkatsu reacted to the gradual box office decline of Japanese cinema by taking things one step further than their already edgy youth output in rebranding themselves as a purveyor of softcore pornography known as Roman Porno. Unlike the familiar “pink film”, Roman Porno was made with the assets of a major studio behind it including better actors, production values, and distribution power but it still obeyed strict genre rules calling for speedy turnarounds, minimal running times and the requisite amount of nudity (to the permitted parameters) at set intervals. 45 years later Roman Porno is back in a series of films directed by some of today’s most interesting directors who attempt to recreate the genre anew for modern audiences whilst paying homage to the originals.

Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind (風に濡れた女, Kaze ni Nureta Onna) starts as it means to go on with hapless protagonist Kosuke (Tasuku Nagaoka) sitting by a river looking sad just as a strange young woman suddenly rides her bicycle directly into the nearby lake before climbing out and stripping off her T-shirt (which, amusingly enough reads “you need tissues for your issues”), revealing her bare breasts to a complete stranger. Kosuke is baffled and confused. He tries to leave but the woman follows him, asking if she can stay with him tonight because she has nowhere else to go. Kosuke is resolved, he’s given up girls and wants nothing whatsoever to do with weird women from ponds but Shiori (Yuki Mamiya) is not one to take no for an answer.

It’s never made clear but something unpleasant has obviously happened to Kosuke that has made him retreat from the city with his tail between his legs (so to speak). A respected playwright, Kosuke seems to have had something of an existential crisis and has decided to condemn himself to a life of self-imposed isolation because “you have to be alone if you really want to think deeply about things”. His isolation is, however, only up to a point. Kosuke’s semi-primitive lifestyle sees him living in a shack in the woods but he has electric lighting provided by generator batteries and grinds his own coffee beans by hand after buying them from a local cafe owned by a man Kosuke went to university with but claims not to have known at the time. The cafe owner’s wife has recently left and he blames Kosuke for reawakening a desire in her that had apparently lain dormant with her husband.

In a shocking coincidence, Shiori has also taken a job at the cafe and has set about seducing the recently lonely owner who has now become fixated and jealous, once again afraid Kosuke in particular is going to steal away his new plaything just like he stole his wife. This is a fallacy on several levels, not least that Shiori is not a woman to be constrained by any man but a true free spirit who gives her love freely to whomever that she chooses.

Spirit might be the best way to describe Shiori who arrives and departs with the wind, a force of nature with the sole intent of freeing her targets of the burden of repressed desires. A radio broadcast later reveals that a tiger has been on the run from the nearby zoo and if this were a fable, you could almost believe the tiger to be Shiori, sinking her teeth into soft centre of human weakness and leaving right after she tears its throat out.

Free spirit as she is, Shiori does find herself in moments of danger as the the threat of sexual violence rears its ugly head. Kosuke likes to think of himself as an enlightened kind of man, an intellectual, but he’s also a self-involved womaniser not above attempting to force himself on a woman he feels to be his for the taking or, half in jest, threatening to rape a former lover. Yet for Shiori much of this is sport – she sees through Kosuke and neatly undercuts all of his self delusions and neuroses, but she’s also merely toying with him.

Finding himself literally kicked out of bed and rendered redundant when Shiori finds more pleasure in getting together with his former lover Kyoko, Kosuke wanders outside in confusion and seduces, with a degree of tenderness, Kyoko’s shy, bespectacled assistant, Yuko. When the morning comes, however, he feels he made a mistake. Yuko has become attached to him, sharing a traumatic childhood story only for Kosuke to brush it aside and encourage her to go out into the world to explore the rich pleasures on offer now that he has “awakened” her. Kosuke remains as self-centred as ever, but Yuko at least does perhaps find something in his words of “wisdom”.

As in all good sex comedy, the men are pathetic slaves to desires they find themselves unable to express, whether out of fear or cultural ideals of masculinity, while the women remain in control and must guide the men either towards a healthier outlook or their own destruction. Both Kosuke and the cafe owner conspire in their own downfall in misguided battles for possession or conquest. Having already suffered defeat, Kosuke has retreated from the field dejected and humiliated, but in his all out impassioned attempt to re-enter the world of carnality he literally brings his entire universe crashing down around his ears. Forced to realise his own ridiculousness, Kosuke is left alone with little else to do than survey the scale of the destruction his various delusions have wrought. A fun loving pastiche, Wet Woman in the Wind is an oddly whimsical tale, witty yet insightful even its seeming lightness.


Currently available to stream via Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles) NSFW!

Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2017)

dawn of the felines poster largerTowards the end of the 60s and faced with the same problems as any other studio of the day – namely declining receipts as cinema audiences embraced television, Nikkatsu decided to spice up their already racy youth orientated output with a steady stream of sex and violence. The Roman Porno line took a loftier approach to the “pink film” – mainstream softcore pornography played in dedicated cinemas and created to a specific formula, by putting the resources of a bigger studio behind it with greater production values and acting talent. 40 years on Roman Porno is back. Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines (牝猫たち, Mesunekotachi) takes inspiration from Night of the Felines by the Roman Porno master Noboru Tanaka but where Tanaka’s film is a raucous comedy following the humorous adventures of its three working girl protagonists, Shiraishi’s is a much less joyous affair as he casts his three lonely heroines adrift in Tokyo’s red light district.

Masako (Juri Ihata), Rie (Michie), and Yui (Satsuki Maue) are best friends, though they don’t even know each other’s real names. They each work for a shady escort agency in Tokyo’s red light district where they’re ordered and dispatched by their two-bit hustler of a manager Nonaka (Takuma Otoo) and driven around by the assistant who it turns out has been secretly filming them and posting the videos on YouTube as a kind of exposé on the sex trade.

Each of the women “has their tale to tell” as one puts it but none of them are particularly unhappy in their work, prostitution is simply their way of life and to that extent completely normalised. It does, however, interfere with their ability to form relationships, not just practically but emotionally. For unclear reasons possibly connected to debt collection Masako is technically homeless despite the large amounts of money she can earn, sleeping in cheap motels or all night manga cafes and carting all of her worldly possessions around with her in a tiny carry on size suitcase on wheels. One of her regulars, a millionaire shut in (Tomohiro Kaku), offers to let her stay with him but their relationship is strange and strained – somewhere between business and pleasure with the lines permanently unclear.

Rei, by contrast, is saddled with an elderly client who usually just wants to talk but eventually takes things in an extreme direction. Her path into prostitution is in a sense more positive even if it stems from a kind of vengeance in that the feeling of being needed and providing a valuable service gives her life meaning.

Yui looks for meaning through romance but rarely finds it thanks to the various potential mates she meets through her work. Yui’s young son Kenta has worrying bruises on his face, arms and torso, rarely speaks, and is frequently abandoned by his mother who pays a shady guy to look after him while she spends her time looking for love.

Working for a lenient agency the girls are more or less free agents rather than abused street walkers trapped by debt-bondage and could quit any time they wanted. Yui and Masako may be looking for an escape from this dead-end world – Yui at least is conscious of her age and the declining bookings, but neither names that as something that they are actively pursuing. Rei, by contrast, has made her escape already but has travelled in the opposite direction – from stifling bourgeois life to Belle du Jour liberation, but her eventual destination may be a much darker one than she’d anticipated.

This darkness hovers round the edges as the threat of violence is only ever indirectly expressed or fetishised as in a sequence led by Yui’s possible new partner and the bondage club he works at as one half of a warmup manzai act. Only towards the end does its reality finally surface, making plain how vulnerable and unprotected the women remain whilst on the job. Far from the liberated laughter of Night of the Felines, Shiraishi’s film traps its women with their own despairs as they wallow in an inescapable well of loneliness, satisfying the needs of others but unable to satisfy their own. Bleak but subtly ironic, Dawn of the Felines finds no joy in the sun rising, only the relief of the end of a working day as its three stray cats wander the streets looking for their place to belong.


Dawn of the Felines was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)