This is essentially a translation of a Finnish language review I wrote. It's not quite on par (translating can be tricky) but the main content is the same.
Love Exposure (Japan, 2008)
Director Sion Sono is probably best known for his cult hit Suicide Club (2001). This beautiful yet disturbingly graphic satire used the horror genre as its playground and painted an image of hectic modern Japan where popular culture and the societal demands could even make suicide fashion. The semi-sequel Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005) dropped horror from the mix, and delivered a 2½ hour dive into the mind of a teenager desperately looking for her identity. Sono’s new film, 237 minute Love Exposure, is logical continuation to the director’s earlier works. It’s also one of the most massive and best movies of the decade.
The primary theme in Love Exposure is religion. The main character, Yu Honda, excellently played by Takahiro Nishijima from the pop-band AAA, is a teenager living in a deeply Catholic family. There are two important women in Yu’s life; his saint-like mother, and Virgin Mary. As a child Yu promises his mother to find his own Mary when he grows up and start a family. After the mother’s death Yu’s father (Atsuro Watabe) becomes a priest, but ultimately descends into depression and starts forcing his son into daily confessions. Being an extremely kind and good hearted person, Yu can’t think of any sins he might have committed. This, of course, is considered even a greater sin. To please his dear father Yu even tries to make up sins, but is soon caught lying. The only solution left is to start committing real sins.
Despite this insane and tragicomic religious circle presented in the film, it is not Sono’s intent to entirely bash Christianity. The director respects the origins of the religion – even as much to include the line “Jesus Christ was cooler than Curt Cobain”. The film’s characters – including Yu, who believes he can be a devout Christian by following the norms taught to him, but doesn’t realize religion should come from one’s own heart and be based on one’s own decision – are as much victims as abusers of religious ideals distorted in the course of time. In Sono’s mad world religions are only one part of the twisted system that also includes the pop-culture insanity of Suicide Club, and the murderous identity crisis seen in Noriko’s Dinner Table.
Love Exposure’s 17 year old protagonist finds his sinful calling in tosatsu, upskirt photography. Yu’s new hooligan friends introduce him to tosatsu legend Lloyd (Hiroshi Ohguchi) who accepts Yu has his student. In Japan tosatsu is reality and a somewhat popular underground phenomena. Photos are taken with most inventive techniques, including the cute puppy strategy, where camera is attached to a dog’s collar. When the victim kneels down to caress the innocent dog, a clean view opens for the camera. In Sono’s hands the art of tosatsu is taken far beyond this, and even kung fu techniques are applied to steal a photo. These scenes present some of the most outrageously amusing footage seen on silver screen in the recent years.
Yu’s plan of committing religious sins is a success to the extent of his father losing his temper and hitting Yu. Yu is only glad about this; it’s the most personal reaction in a long time from his father, who now hides under the priest’s gown and treats his own son like a stranger. However, there is another, even more important reason for Yu’s obsession with tosatsu. Yu believes it’s the only way to find Mary, who is hidden somewhere amongst the millions of people of Tokyo. The signal for finding the right person would be a hard on (you read that right) that Yu has never before experienced. Waiting for that day Yu spends his time with his new friends – shoplifters and perverts – who ironically form a more understanding community than Yu’s real family.
Family is a regular theme in Sono’s movies. In Noriko’s Dinner Table a father was desperately trying to track down his runaway daughter, while Strange Circus dealt with incest. Obviously Sono’s family portraits are quite different from those of Japan’s beloved but Sono’s hated filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. Sono’s has even gone as far to call Ozu an Antichrist. It would seem appropriate to call Sono an Anti-Ozu. However, Sono’s family-hell depictions are not only angst towards the safe and unexciting Japanese cinema traditions, but also, to some extent, based by the director’s own life. This is also true to Love Exposure, which was influenced by the director’s tosatsu loving friend as well as Sono’s own experiences as being a part of a religious cult.
Drawn together from a 370 page screenplay Love Exposure features such a massive amount of story that the plot summary presented in this review is nothing but a brief introduction. What would seem like the beginning of end – with Catholism and tosatsu already thoroughly inspected – turns out to be only the first phase. Many important characters, such Koike (Eiji Okuda’s daughter Sakura Ando), karate skilled Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), and mysterious Miss Sasori, disguised in black coat and Meiko Kaji hat, have not even made their appearance in the film by this point. It’s only after their introduction, around 58 minutes, when the film’s title screen appears, and the first of the story’s five chapters is brought to a conclusion.
While the storyline unravels with logic, it also manages to be completely unpredictable on its way to the eventual climax. Adjusting to the varying moods of its characters, the film modifies its style and approach several times. Influences have been taken from classic Japanese exploitation films, art house movies, and even Hong Kong action. Due to the long running time this variety is only welcome and does not make the film less coherent. In shorter form the mix would probably become nonsensical, which was also observed by the director when he prepared the producer-pleasing 2 hour test-version. On the other hand, Sono’s first draft ran six hours and was more explicit. In the 4 hour version, which is Sono’s final cut, for example sexual undertones are constantly present, but there are no graphic sex scenes or nudity.
The film’s most problematic part might be, as reversed as it may sound, the sequences around the 60 minute mark. These scenes represent such audio-visual perfection that anything that follows can’t possibly reach the same level. Especially the film’s soundtrack, part of which was created by the punk-pop band Yura Yura Teikoku, deserves recognition. Religious music is also used to a great extent, sometimes even simultaneously with pop songs. Typical to Sono’s movies, there’s a good amount of handheld cinematography , which fits the film’s style well. Still, as a whole Sono’s vision relies more on storyline than technical credits, and this softens the impact when moving on from the wildest parts to more casual storytelling. Nevertheless, the viewer should be prepared for slower pacing and a bit less outrageous plot turns during the film’s second half.
More than anything else Love Exposure is an experience. As such it may be slightly flawed, but it’s also endlessly fascinating and almost certainly different from anything created before in the history of cinema. The extreme length may put off casual viewers, but the film isn’t boring for one second. When the storyline finally wraps up after four hours the viewer can’t help but to wish Sono had depicted the chain of event even a little bit further. What might have happened next is a good topic for discussion after the film, as Love Exposure is sure to remain in the viewers mind for days if not weeks.