Sion Sono’s Love Exposure covers a lot of territory. It’s a romance, a revenge tale, a heartbreaking tragedy, a truly zany comedy, a blood-splattered action romp, a conspiracy thriller, and a twisted coming-of-age tale. Granted, the film has room to breathe: it runs for a breezy (I’m not being entirely sarcastic) 237 minutes. However, if you’re audacious enough to make a film this long, it had better be cohesive and riveting, and despite the frequent genre-bending, Sion Sono succeeds admirably in both respects. Love Exposure is a deviant triumph.
The hero of this tale is adolescent boy Yu Tsunoda (Takahiro Nishijima), whose father took the vows of Catholic priesthood following the death of Yu’s mother. The film kicks off with young Yu’s promise to his dying mother to find his “Virgin Maria,” with the unspoken caveat that he will love no other woman beforehand. Representing the first chapter – and hour – of the film, the road Yu travels to find his Maria is an absurd and wonderful portrait of adolescent single-mindedness and male perversion. Then the title card appears.
Where it goes from there is as gleefully surprising as it is completely appropriate. The film is downright Shakespearean in its use of sinister plotting, lewd humor, bloody revenge, and dramatic irony, but it’s also indisputably a Sion Sono production. Characters betray, manipulate, and senselessly beat each other left and right. Sexual deviance and over-the-top violence are around every corner. The word “pervert” is uttered countless times, and often in its own stirring defense. Yu is clearly the hero here, as the folks that populate this film tend to do reprehensible things, but even his heroism violates quite a few human rights issues. Thankfully, Sono uses his four hours expertly to give a sympathetic voice to all his characters.
Atsuro Watabe is fantastic as Yu’s father and existentially-troubled priest. The scenes between father and son are consistently great, and though their relationship is objectively exaggerated, it is nonetheless powerful. Sakura Ando is creepy and funny as Koike, a high-tech stalker with a hidden agenda, but Hikari Mitsushima wins the film with a brilliant performance as Yu’s man-hating “Maria,” named Yoko. A late extended scene between Yu and Yoko marks the film’s creative and emotional peak.
Love Exposure is often gratuitous, low-brow, and even tasteless – you will never again see as many shots of young girl’s panties in one place – but is also sneakily poignant. Beneath all the sex and violence and youthful transgressions are beautiful moments and chillingly perceptive lines. For the first half of the film, the humor is so ridiculous and unexpected that it’s automatically funny, if a bit slight, but by the second half, a “Peek-a-Panty” porn video carries as much emotional weight as an earlier scene of graphic child abuse. Standing as evidence of Sono’s epic accomplishment, Yu Tsunoda may in fact have the most sympathetic erection ever committed to film.
I’m not sure how, but Sion Sono extracts barrels of truth from outrageous situations. However, while his most devastating scenes are often equally hilarious, Sono isn’t afraid to go long stretches without a blood geyser or cross-dressing to liven the mood. At heart, Love Exposure isn’t that strange a tale, often covering well-worn territory like childhood rebellion and unrequited love, but the film’s execution is so fresh and surreal and unrestrained that it could never be trite. With Love Exposure, Sono has drafted a meditation on love, faith, and identity masquerading as a pervert manifesto.
- Emmett Duff