Love Exposure defies description, and that's a compliment. Director Sion Sono's action-comedy-drama-satire-whatever is a loopy masterpiece of unexpected power, using modest production values to shock, surprise, amaze, delight and even disgust. The film touches on religion, family, sex, love, lust, guilt and more, while also cleverly dabbling in the unique otaku culture that makes Japanese entertainment so seductive to some and repulsive to others. The whole is outlandish, surprisingly touching, compulsively watchable and unbelievably entertaining, but what does Love Exposure ultimately mean? Maybe not a lot, but the film's ability to affect cannot be denied.
Told through copious voiceover and a repetitive yet hypnotic soundtrack consisting of classical music, Japanese punk and other assorted cues, Love Exposure doesnít even deliver its title card until nearly an hour in. Before that, we're introduced to Yu Tsunoda (a very game Takahiro Nishijima), the 17 year-old son of a Catholic priest, and the boy who will become the "King of Perverts". Yu's road to perversion is a winding one; he and his father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) lead a devout religious life, but Tetsu falls for vivacious party woman Kaori (Makiko Watanabe). The relationship doesn't last, leaving Tetsu broken and emotionally unreachable. Ultimately, the only way that Yu can affect his father is through confession of his sins.
So Yu sins, first in minor ways like killing insects, gradually upping his transgressions until he becomes a virtuoso at "peek-a-panty" photography - and that really gets his father's attention. Yu is recruited into a group of perverts where he learns to jump around like a wushu master while wielding a camera, all so he can snap a picture of some girl's patterned undies. It's in that training montage Ė set to Ravel's Bolero - that Love Exposure sets its outlandishly entertaining tone. What Yu and his pals are doing is ridiculous, but there's an odd exhilaration in how it celebrates perversion. Adding an extra layer is Yu's inability to find his activity titillating. He's doing it for his father's attention, and not because it excites him sexually. Obviously, this is not normal for a healthy young man.
Hope for Yu's sexual function arrives in the form of Yoko (tough and fetching Hikari Mitsushima), a rebellious teen who kicks ass while enchanting males with her manner of wearing a schoolgirl outfit. At first sight, Yoko becomes Yu's "Maria", i.e. his ideal woman embodying purity, strength, and alluring, barely legal sex appeal. Unfortunately, Yoko disdains Yu and only has eyes for Lady Scorpion, a trenchcoat-wearing gangster whoís really Yu in drag. Also, Yoko and Yu become step-siblings, as Yoko's guardian is Kaori, who's newly reconciled with Tetsu. How will Yu win his Maria under these sitcom-like circumstances? And what about mysterious teen Koike (devilish Sakura Ando), the femme fatale who schemes to turn Yu's family against him? Note: all this happens by the end of Love Exposureís second hour, and there are still two more to go. Thatís right, this film is four hours long. Good God.
Love Exposure resembles a live-action anime in that it presents a simplistic and barely realistic world but makes it credible and compelling. The story itself feels like it could have sprung from some bizarre manga Ė itís given to sitcom-like plot devices that are exaggerated and yet involving, and is unblinkingly supportive of its characters' convictions. Love Exposure is too ridiculous to take seriously, but Sono asks us to do just that - especially during the last two hours, where the emotions become heightened to melodrama-worthy levels. The film upends its sitcom plotline and explores a religious cult called "Zero", giving Sono a chance to question faith, love and family to a surprising degree. At one point, one character quotes the Bible for close to ten minutes - a rather indulgent and even pretentious move - and yet Sono's previous three hours have primed the audience for precisely that catharsis. Emotions and situations have built to a point where Sono gets away with practically anything.
Love Exposure is decidedly low budget; the film was shot on video, art direction is more spartan than sumptuous, and costumes quite simple. The overall production resembles a TV drama more than a feature film, but it's content rather than form that fuels Love Exposure. The content does sprawl; ultimately, there's so much here that Sono's overall meaning becomes difficult to parse. It may all be a red herring, however. Love Exposure may talk a complex game, but it finds its success in the most basic of ideas. Despite the lofty themes thrown back and forth, the story ultimately comes down to this: will Yu ever be able to reach Yoko, and will she return his love and faith? In many ways, Love Exposure is simply a pure love story - albeit one that delights in cross-dressing, lesbian flirtations, shadowy erections and plenty of peek-a-panty. Audiences are required to be discerning.
Despite the epic length and naughty subject matter, Sion Sono makes Love Exposure surprisingly accessible. Sono delivers his exposition in a very entertaining fashion, and fanboys are served too. Sono hasnít left his Suicide Club roots behind him, treating us early on to one especially over-the-top moment where some sausage snipping results in a full-on crimson geyser. The scene is as funny as it is repellent, and along with the kung-fu peek-a-panty, lesbian kisses and earnest emotions could easily sum up the film's appeal. This is a gleefully irreverent and entertainingly sacrilegious film, with violence and implied sexual content. And yet it's about the extremes a person will go to in order to express their love. In many ways, Love Exposure is why many of us go to the movies: for the unattainable emotional high. The sick, vulgar stuff has an undeniable attraction too. In short, Love Exposure is your film geek wet dream.
(Kozo, Reviewed at the Udine Far East Film Festival, 2009)