129. LOVE EXPOSURE (2008)

Ai no Mukidashi

“Nothing is more important than love.”–Shion Sono on the theme of Love Exposure

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Nishijima, , Sakura Andô, Atsurô Watabe, Makiko Watanabe

PLOT: Yu Honda, the son of a Catholic priest, falls in with a gang of upskirt photographers in an attempt to generate sins he can confess to his father. One day, while dressed in drag after losing a bet, he falls in love with Yoko, a man-hating schoolgirl who believes him to be a woman. He strives to woo her despite the mistaken identity, but a mysterious girl named Koike and a brainwashing cult seem intent on preventing Yu from ever winning Yoko’s heart.

Still from Love Exposure (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • Sono’s original cut of the film was six hours long. At the request of producers he cut it down to two hours but felt the result was incoherent; the current four-hour run time is a compromise.
  • Sono reportedly wrote the part of upskirt photography guru “Master Lloyd” with Lloyd Kaufman in mind.
  • “Miss Scorpion” was a recurring character from a 1970s Japanese women-in-prison film series.
  • Despite winning awards at multiple Asian film festivals as well as a FIRPESCI international film critics awards, Love Exposure‘s long running time made it anathema to theatrical distributors. The movie finally saw a very limited run in U.S. and Canadian theaters in 2011.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some will doubtlessly be impressed by the bloody castration scene, but a less shocking image marks the centerpiece of Love Exposure: “the miracle,” the moment when the wind blows up Yoko’s skirt and reveals her alabaster underthings, giving Yu the first erection of his life. White panties—a symbol of sex masked in the color of purity—are the most important recurring image in Love Exposure, even more so than crosses and hard-ons. As Master Lloyd explains while pointing to a bronze relief image of a spreadeagled woman with a swatch of white silk covering her nether portions, “Anything you seek can be found here, in the groin.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although there is some crazy stylization—slo-mo bullets following a schoolgirl through Tokyo and a dysfunctional family posing with a giant cross in the desert—what makes Love Exposure‘s mad heart tick is the plot that piles crazy on top of crazy. Any story that incorporates Catholic guilt, ninja panty-peeking photographers, kung fu and samurai sequences, mistaken identity subplots, and teenage cult kingpins, plays it all as a romantic comedy, and has to run for twice the length of an average movie just to fit in everything the director wants to say, is bound to be a little weird.


Trailer for Love Exposure

COMMENTS:  For four hours Love Exposure bounces back and forth between poles of purity and perversion, suggesting both the fetishistic perversity of organized religion and the purity of the dedicated pervert’s devotion.  Despite all the panty shots, cross dressing, rape, hints of incest, and sexual power politics, the movie is at bottom a deceptively conventional love story. Yu seeks a pure love—a hard-on from the heart—and he perseveres, keeping faithful to his virginal ideal “Maria” while traveling through a pornographic world.

He finds his great love in Yoko, who, ironically, hates all men, thanks to the abuse heaped on her by her father. She thinks herself a lesbian, and thinks Yu a contemptible “hentai” (pervert).  These lovers would be star-crossed enough even if not for a case of mistaken identity of Shakespearean proportions and the manipulations of Koike, a mini-skirted teenage supervillainess who wants to keep the pair apart for her own purposes. Add kidnapping, brainwashing, and extortion to the plot as the unscrupulous Koike attempts to break Yu’s spirit and sanity, and a happy ending for these lovers seems impossible.

This is the setup for one of the strangest and most twisted love triangles imaginable. Koike is attracted to Yu, although not necessarily in a sexual way—rather, she’s fascinated by his “original sin,” and has an obsession with destroying him. Koike isn’t attracted to Yoko, but pretends to be just to get under Yu’s skin. Yoko isn’t attracted to Yu or Koike, but instead pines for “Miss Scorpion,” a character who doesn’t actually exist. It’s quite the high school soap opera mess. Furthermore, each of these damaged characters suffers from a bad relationship with their father (the movie has more daddy issues than the Saturday night lineup at your local gentleman’s club). Yu, who is naturally gentle and kind, manufactures sins so that he can confess them to his stern priest father. Koike and Yoko each come from abusive families. Koike’s father made her apologize to God for having an “obscene body” while whipping her; in contrast to the brutal revenge she takes on her tormentor, runaway Yoko’s habit of kung fu-ing random men she meets on the street because she hates all males (other than Kurt Cobain and Jesus) is a mild quirk. When you put three characters this messed up in the same school, and mix in hormonal desires and religious politics, the results are bound to be explosive.

Although Koike and Yoko’s histories are extensively explored in the marathon running time, Love Exposure is clearly Yu’s story. In Yu’s mind, Yoko represents his Maria, the Virgin Mary; he promised his dying mother he would marry a woman just like the Madonna. Yoko makes for an unlikely Mary, but as the story develops Yu becomes an even more improbably sort of Jesus of the Perverts. (The theological symbolism suggests hints of metaphorical mother-son incest, to be followed by threats of statutory brother-sister incest when Yu’s father announces plans to adopt Yoko). When Yu apprentices under Master Lloyd, the prophet of panty porn explains to him that upskirt photography is “a holy act” and that “any act of holiness will be punished by the people. Just like Jesus was punished.” The torments to follow for Yu surely constitute punishment; as a proud pervert, he’s considered an outcast, and rejected even by his beloved Maria. He acquires three dimwitted disciples, who not coincidentally end up eventually betraying him to the Pharisees of the Zero Church. He’s designated the “King of Perverts” by a porn conglomerate, but resists the temptation to “poke,” reserving his chastity and preserving his paradoxical position as the virgin hentai. Another plot convolution finds him dressed as a priest at a convention of degenerates, absolving perverts’ sins before a giant golden phallus. Yu turns perversion into a holy vocation, and, putting aside for a moment that the main part of that vocation is to invade the sanctity of a woman’s skirt with his prying camera lens, he is a holy man. At least, he may be the holiest example of a man we are likely to find in this pornographic society.

The above probably makes Love Exposure sound more serious and intellectual than it is. Rest assured, the running time leaves plenty of room for scenes of shoolgirls kickboxing wave after wave of gangsters. Despite the outrageous, transgressive nature of the material, Sono’s film is paradoxically light, and decent at heart. It’s a wildly plotted, elaborately stylized film with a simple “love conquers all” moral. And it is a romantic comedy, one that’s often quite funny (you don’t hear lines like “Jesus, I approve of you as the only cool man other than Kurt Cobain” in just any old movie). But Sono put religion front and center in the film, and most of the humor arises from the idea of the holy pervert, with the laughs frequently coming at the expense of the Catholic Church: e.g. the absurd notion that today’s Madonna would be re-imagined as a panty-flashing kung fu bisexual Japanese schoolgirl. As an outsider to Catholicism, Sono’s casual blasphemies don’t have the nasty points of the provocations of an insider to the religion like Luis Buñuel. Rather, he seems nonplussed by Christianity. He admires Christ’s focus on love: Paul’s famous “love is patient” sermon from 1 Corinthians 13 occupies the emotional center of the film. But he is bemused by the Church’s keen eye for sexual sin and its passion to root it out. Late in the film Yoko, believing herself holy, rejects Yu’s pure love again with the accusation “you’re a pervert! You’re a pervert by anyone’s standards!” Yu’s response is the classic anti-authoritarian moral cry: “Who cares about the standards of normal people?” Love Exposure is proof that Shion Sono doesn’t care about the standards of normal people; so long as there’s love, all else is forgiven.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays as if John Waters reworked a screenplay by Mel Gibson, then handed it off to the ghosts of Luis Buñuel and John Hughes for polishing.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (2011 release)

“…deserves any prize for weirdness going… Deeply strange…”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

“…it might be too obvious to say there is no other film quite like ‘Love Exposure,’ even if at times it can feel like watching every movie ever all at once… [a] singularly overwhelming oddity…”–Mark Olsen, The Los Angeles Times (2011 release)

OFFICIAL SITES:

Love Exposure | Third Window Films – The British distributor’s site includes the trailer, a collection of stills, and links to reviews

Love Exposure | Olive Films – The U.S. distributor’s site contains only a synopsis and basic information about the film

IMDB LINK: Love Exposure (2008)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Love Exposure: Q&A with director Sion Sono – Part 1 of a videotaped question and answer with Sono at the New York Asian Film Festival

Lengthy tale of lust and religion – Report on the film by Mark Schilling of The Japan Times, incorporating quotes from Sono

Upskirts for Christ: A Discussion About “Love Exposure” – A back-and-forth discussion between film critics Joe Bowman and Andrew Grant about the film (it would have been more interesting if they didn’t agree on absolutely every point, but it’s still thought-provoking)

DVD INFO: North American distribution rights for Love Exposure landed in the hands of Olive Films, known for taking chances on cult titles but not for their elaborate home video productions. The Love Exposure DVD (buy) crams the entire 4 hour movie onto a single disc (thankfully, with no appreciable loss of video quality). Not surprisingly, there are no DVD extras, as every kilobit of digital space is needed to host the movie itself. With less compression, Olive’s Blu-ray (buy) presumably offers better picture quality, but no additional extras.

If your player can handle Region 2 PAL discs, you might want to spring for Third Window’s 2-DVD British release instead (buy). It includes the trailer and a one-hour “making of” documentary on the second disc.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Janna.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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