writer, director, editor
Sion Sono and the Value of Sex in Art

Warning: Discussion of NSFW content

Sion Sono, among Japan's most subversive filmmakers, has a few unusual penchants that tend to stick out when viewing his admittedly-wide filmography. A recurring motif running throughout Sono’s stories, especially in his most notable works, is an exploration of the feminine, especially through the lens of sex. Appearing primarily in Strange Circus, Guilty of Romance, Antiporno, Tag, Love Exposure, Forest of Love, and, to a lesser extent, in Suicide Club, this theme stands out due to Sono’s particular and explicit means of expressing it.

Sono's use of sex as a narrative and cinematic device comes against the backdrop of Japan's history of sex in media, including its once-popular mode of "pink films," which included vast arrays of sexual content. Similar its Western counterpart, the Golden Age of Pornography, the pink film encompassed sex in various forms but largely remained in the realm of the pornographic. Among the most notable string of pink films were Nikkatsu's "Roman Porno" series, which allowed for great artistic freedom on the part of writers and directors, so long as the films adhered to a minimum of four sexual scenes per hour of content. The inclusion of sex in art is an unfortunate point of contention, primarily due to moral arguments on the obscene. For better or worse, sexual content straddles a line in artistic integrity and intent that is difficult to balance; lean too far in one direction and the predominant takeaway is one of pornography. As such, using sexual content as a means of artistic critique of wider parts of the human condition is agonizingly difficult to successfully accomplish considering how much sex is a part of the lives of most people.

When it comes to Sion Sono, his particular use of sex in cinema is often as part of a larger story of family, identity, and meaning. Strange Circus is arguably the most direct exploration of sex and family dynamics; the story follows the young Mitsuko, who is groomed by her father, Gozo, over the course of several years; he begins by forcing her into clandestinely watching him and her mother having sex from the confines of a locked cello case; the father eventually forces himself on Mitsuko, leading to a long relationship. Mitsuko’s mother finds out about this and becomes intensely jealous, opting to wear youthful clothing when sexually engaging the father herself. Initially, this twisted tale is depicted as a fiction-within-fiction; the story of Mitsuko is the plot of a novel being written by wheelchair-bound erotic novelist Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki). As the film progresses, the boundaries between this in-universe fiction and the film itself are blurred as Taeko is revealed to be Mitsuko's mother, Sayuri, herself, who had accidentally injured Mitsuko, leading her to be pulled from the family and placed in foster care. Sayuri subsequently cripples the abusive Gozo and keeps him trapped in the cello case, intermittently torturing him. Even this narrative is thrown into question, being nested in a series of dream sequences and the film's wider frame story of the titular "strange circus" of drag queens preparing a guillotine.

Sono's most explicit means of expressing sexual freedom and control is explicit not in the sense of being visually graphic (although his films aren't lacking in this regard either) but rather in the sense that his characters frequently shout their feelings akin to an "I Want" song in musical theater.

(Mouse over video to play) (Tap video to play)
Forest of Love
Guilty of Romance

Above are examples taken from three of his works; Kyōko from Antiporno, who frequently proclaims herself as a whore and is virulently defensive on who the term identifies, Taeko from the television release of Forest of Love, who proclaims the same, and Izumi from Guilty of Romance, who expresses this feeling amidst her indulgence in a secret life of prostitution.

In the 2010s, Nikkatsu attempted to reboot its Roman Porno series and tapped Sion Sono to direct a film as part of that. Quite fittingly, this resulted in the above Antiporno, a film described by critic Nathanael Hood as "aggressively unsexy." In a seeming spit in the face of sexual exploitation, Antiporno spends its first thirty minutes following Kyōko (Ami Tomite) as she traverses an apartment space where each room is painted a single, vivid color; all the while she urinates, vomits, and shits into the bathroom's toilet in an exaggerated artistic malaise. She humiliates and debases her assistant, proclaiming the values of being a whore before the facade is ripped away in a Brechtian reveal; the camera trucks back to reveal the entire apartment as the set of a film, with Kyōko as a failing actress and her assistant, Noriko, as her sexually dominating co-star. The roles are reversed as Noriko debases Kyōko in manners mirroring what was included in the in-universe film script. Kyōko's turbulent sexual history, beginning with her association of sexual openness with virtue per her recently-deceased sister (who took her own life prior to the story), continuing to her violent rape at the hands of a stranger to whom she offers her virginity, and concluding with her eventual foray into the Japanese adult video market, Sono's critique of the pornographic industry is put on horrific and open display.

This is comparable to Lars von Trier's treatment of sex in his 5½ hour film Nymphomaniac, which takes a similarly "unsexy" view of sexual content; while following the titular nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the film features a number of explicit sex scenes between Joe and her numerous lovers but often strays from depictions that would be more commonly viewed as titillating. However, even this lacks the blasé treatment of the act that is conveyed by Sono in Antiporno.

This is not to say that sex in media can only be approached critically and artistically through a portrayal that is antithetical to sexual appeal;

Part of: