Love Exposure (Ai No Mukidashi) first published by Film4
Summary: Sion Sono’s Berlinale-winner is a Bible-length blend of the pious and the perverse that puts the rites back into teen rites of passage.
Review: “Even a pervert has a life history,” declares epicene 17-year-old Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima) to fellow pupil – and girl of his dreams – Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). “Perverts have reasons for being who they are.”
As Yu delivers these assurances, he is dressed in drag as ‘Miss Scorpion’ (the avenging heroine from the cult 1970s Female Convict Scorpion movies) and struggling to conceal the massive erection that now, ever since he first saw Yoko’s resemblance to the Virgin Mary (as well as her exposed panties), he gets every time he so much as thinks about her. Which is to say that he is himself a ‘pervert’ and a ‘sinner’ (his words), although perhaps no more so than any of the other characters in Love Exposure – or indeed than any of us, driven as we all are by the fragile human need for family, forgiveness and love.
Writer/director Sion Sono populates his film with kooky, if not downright unhinged, characters, but also takes the time to show us the life histories that made them who they are, starting with the first, furiously paced hour in which we see Yu go from young Catholic boy to ‘ordinary high school kid’ to upskirt-obsessed ‘king of perverts’ – all born out of a desire to connect with his sexually repressed father-turned-priest Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe). Where Yu opts for the path of perversion, his man-bashing, kick-ass punk of a would-be girlfriend Yoko prefers the path of hatred, down which she was driven by her own abusive father (Keisuke Horibe). Sociopathic cultleader and cocaine smuggler Koike (Sakuro Ando), on the other hand, has opted for the path of deception, manipulating everyone to do her mysterious bidding, while deluding herself about her own motives along the way – and she, too, is a product of a viciously despotic single male parent.
These three main players in the bizarre love triangle that ensues are all victims of bad fathering, reflecting modern Japan’s historical roots in rampant, destructive patriarchy. Here, perversion is figured not just as an individual character trait, but as a national legacy. For all their personal kinks and quirks, Yu, Yoko and Koike embody the youth of a country left rudderless by the sins of its fathers. No wonder, then, that our ever naïve hero is so often shown wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with the colours and symbols of the Japanese flag as he stumbles from one confused scenario to the next.
With its oh-so-contrived meet-cute (dubbed ‘the Miracle’, and taking place in the middle of a street brawl), and its central couple eventually overcoming all obstacles (not least their own love-hate relationship) to rediscover one another, Love Exposure certainly follows all the contours of a conventional romance, but there is something in this film’s religious focus and outsized duration, not to mention its preoccupation with the sleazier side of eroticism, that makes this four-hour slice of wayward whimsy deviate considerably from your average romcom fare. Most aberrant (and no doubt to some abhorrent) is Sono’s fixation on the strange interplay between sexual awakening and spiritual journey. Whether he is navigating the Catholicism he has inherited from his parents, or being initiated in the ‘holy art’ of tosatsu (peek-a-panty photography), or taking ‘confessions’ from fellow ‘perverts’, or rising through the ranks of Koike’s sham Zero Church, Yu is always being guided by aims theosophical as much as ithyphallic – and despite the prominent bulge in his pants, Yu remains an oddly chaste character, played by Nishijima as a smiling holy fool. In these peculiarly literalised rites of passage, Yu’s pursuit of Yoko’s love never seems less than true, or less indeed than a quest for truth itself.
Love Exposure races through its 237 minutes, keeping viewers on their toes by constantly switching its character perspectives, its visual styles, and even its genres – now domestic drama, now teen coming-of-ager, now Shakespearean cross-dressing comedy of errors, now romance, now religious satire, now seedy freakshow, now martial arts extravaganza, now tragedy of madness. It is as messy as an adolescent’s life, and by the poignant end you might need a tissue for purposes other than the lonely self-gratification afforded by voyeuristic porn.
Verdict: Ambitious, inventive and endlessly arresting, Sion Sono’s epic romance is a vibrant rite of passage, guiding us through a world of repression, hypocrisy and delusion towards true love. Love Exposure comes over like Japan’s eroto-theosophical answer to the allegorical journeys of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
© Anton Bitel