Like David Lynch, director Sion Sono uses cinema as a means to examine the horror that lurks at the edges of ordinary life. Sono’s work poses a simple question: how can we maintain the guise of a civilized, well-mannered society in the face of such utter and obvious depravity? As part of his “Hate Trilogy” — a loose compilation of thematically related films that also includes the 4-hour-plus Love Exposure and Cold Fish — Guilty of Romance opens with the framing device of a mystery. In the first scenes of the film, the police investigate a gruesome discovery: the body of a woman attached to a mannequin in a “love hotel” — a private room used to carry out illicit affairs with prostitutes. Like much of the rest of the film, this is an intentionally salacious hook, intended to lead the viewer into a self-reflection on being bait. Guilty of Romance implicitly asks what draws us to such lurid and sensationalist stories, drawing a parallel to the same desires that fuel the machine of pornography and prostitution.
Structured in a series of chapters, the film jumps back and forth in time, intercutting the police investigation with a familiar melodramatic narrative: the bored housewife Izumi Kikuchi (Megumi Kagurazaka), married to the perfect husband, wanders out of her routine, first drawn into soft-core modeling, then hard-core pornography, and finally to full-blown prostitution under the tutelage of the charming mentor Mitsuko Ozawa (Makoto Togashi), who likewise moonlights from her more comfortable life as a university lecturer/wealthy scion. Sono alludes as much to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (most obviously in the costume and character of Kaoru, the pimp/gleeful rapist) and Kafka’s “The Castle” as much as Luis Buñuel’s original “housewife-to-hooker” drama, Belle de Jour.
Sexual deprivation in contemporary society serves as a prerequisite for the view Sono adopts throughout the film. In one of the most intriguing scenes, Izumi, Mitsuko, and Kaoru politely discuss the happenings of the sex trade with Mitsuko’s mother, while also hurling vicious insults through smiles and sips of tea. Rather than simply bemoaning the fall of culture (indeed, the film suggests that the contemporary state of sexual mores has existed long before the digital age, passed down from a literal father in the case of Mitsuko), Sono mirrors the meaninglessness of performative sex with the meaningless of marital sex in traditional hierarchical gender roles.
As Izumi enters further into the world of prostitution, Mitsuko teaches her how to imbue the act with meaning; the financial transaction involved in accepting money for sex becomes not about desperation, but about shifting the balance of power. In her married life, Izumi first appears as a maid, adorned in an apron and fixing tea to her husband’s critical specifications. Even as she enters the “respectable” workplace of selling sausages in a supermarket, her superior urges her to use her sexuality to entice customers. The soft versions of sexual harassment and humiliation that Izumi endures at the supermarket offer more humiliation than the hard sexual acts she later performs. Indeed, by the film’s end, Izumi still controls the power dynamic, forcing the men who serve as patrons to resort to physical violence. By acknowledging and embracing her own sexuality (or some version of it), Izumi attains a type of independence at the margins of society. The film ultimately serves not as a cautionary tale about the sex trade, but as a warning to a society content to ignore its own desires in favor of outmoded forms of respectability.