Sion Sono’s Love Exposure is a tale of lust, obsession and religious ferour which has a four hour running time but breezes by quite happily.
Yu (Nishijima) lives the life of a devout Christian. After his mother dies his father Tetsu (Watabe) becomes a priest but is soon seduced by an emotionally volatile woman named Kaori (Watanabe) who then proceeds to leave him. A heart-broken Tetsu begins to torment the spiritually and morally innocent Yu by forcing him to confess sins on a daily basis. To appease his father Yu begins to sin on a daily basis and on the advice of delinquent friends he trains to become an expert in upskirt photography and becomes a master at getting panty shots. One day, while dressed as a girl, he witnesses a beautiful man-hating girl named Yoko (Mitsushima) get into a street brawl. He instantly falls in love with her and decides to intervene. Little does he know that a cult leader in the Zero Church named Aya (Ando) is manipulating them for her own purposes.
Sion Sono has directed and written a story which is bursting with ideas and good humour. It is delivered in a non-linear manner from multiple viewpoints. Unlike Cold Fish there is no grit here and instead what we get is a bright and goofy story that satirises cults, high school romance, martial arts and ‘tosatsu’ – the art of taking pictures of girl’s underwear.
The first two thirds of the film are the best with hilarious comedy where the unique cast of characters are introduced through amusing sequences, my favourites being the acrobatic martial arts panty-shot photo training and the gang initiation process that Yu undergoes. If the whole thing sounds like a horrible melange of ideas and an example of a director indulging himself then the final results will surprise because there is some bite and intelligence to various aspects of the film including the satirical look at catholic guilt and the comedic use of the way cults manipulate people’s thinking by keeping them busy with irrelevant tasks to stop them from thinking and using attractive members of the opposite sex to distract those whose faith is wavering.
Love Exposure does not aim for seriousness and just wants to celebrate love and finding one’s identity but even so when the film shifts gears into drama the breezy tone undercuts the emotional journeys of the characters and the drama on screen. But then if it concentrated on being serious it would stop being entertaining and those four hours would be dull. Thankfully the performances keep everything moving fast.
Pop star Takahiro Nishijima and rising star Hikari Mitsushima are able to do the physical comedy easily, their innocent and cute faces undergo all of the exaggerated expressions and they throw themselves into physical scenes with gusto. I have mentioned it once but I will mention it again, Yu’s aforementioned photo-training has to be watched because it is very funny. Hikari in particular has earned much acclaim and she portrays Yoko as a totally cute man-hating badass who can hold her own in any fight. Watching her tear up the screen is wonderful. They battle bravely against the comedy to make the drama matter but it is hard not to laugh when the lead is in drag as Sasori Female Convict Scorpion.
The best performance comes from Sakura Ando who portrays the manipulative seductress Koike. She is a slippery chameleon who carries a green parakeet and masks the hatred and horror in her heart with a mask of control. Her tale is the most tragic and Ando is able to ride the transitions between seriousness and comedy better than her co-stars.
The use of digital camera gives everything an immediacy and spark. The Tak Sakaguchi choreographed brawls are free-flowing, fast and furious, the comedy is amusing, and in the emotional scenes where the camera can get up close and personal you can see the tears streak down faces. Set design is always interesting with the Zero Church being a minimalist nightmare and the Tetsu’s sermons being bathed in white light or red depending on the his Tetsu’s moods.
Love Exposure will divide audiences because it is a daring film not least because of its long running time but also because it is a unique and individual ride which throws cinematic convention to the wind. I am tempted to call it a multi-strand masterpiece but there were moments when it could have been shortened. It is a minor quibble because with so many brilliantly crafted scenes and sequences, filled with so many characters, set-pieces and ideas and such a defiance for conventional cinematic rules that it will either frustrate or entertain. At no point was I bored and I loved the film.
Romaji: Ai no Mukidashi
Release Date: 31st January 2009 (Japan)
Running Time: 237 mins.
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono
Starring: Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima, Sakura Ando, Atsuro Watabe, Makiko Watanabe, Mitsuro Fukikoshi