Japanese director Sion Sono is a very interesting guy, and his movies reflect that. They are bloody, crazy, and generally leave you in a state of complete confusion. They are, if nothing else, experiences. Whether or not you are able to stomach them defines if they are experiences worth having. Prior to watching Love Exposure, I had seen several of his films, and though I am glad that I saw them, I have never particularly liked them. There is just something about his movies that has rubbed me the wrong way. That is, until I saw this one. Love Exposure is unequivocally Sion Sono’s best film, and one of the best modern Japanese films I’ve seen. Go below to find out why.
To properly summarize Love Exposure would be essentially impossible due to its length, so I will give a broad overview of the main characters instead. The story centers around Yu, a young boy who becomes a master peek-a-panty photographer because he is obsessed with sinning while also trying to find his Maria (AKA Virgin Mary), who will be the one girl who will give him a hard on. He eventually meets his Maria in the form of Yoko, a girl who hates every man in existence (except for Kurt Cobain and Jesus), while he is dressed in drag, and she falls in love with his in-drag alter-ego, “Miss Scorpion.” Then there is Koike, a high-ranking member at a cult known as “Zero Church,” who is constantly taking note of and meddling in Yu’s life for personal gain. His father, Tetsu, is a Catholic priest who is in love with Kaori, who sleeps around a lot and took Yoko from her abusive father after they broke up.
Love Exposure is a film that truly takes advantage of its length. Its story goes through a whole lot of twists and turns that could never be possible with a shorter film. If anything, it was too short. Apparently the original cut was closer to six hours, and that makes a lot of sense. There are various ideas and concepts brought up in the film that appear significant early on but become completely irrelevant. These useless moments are my biggest issue with the film. Whether they are relics from workprint past or not, they shouldn’t be in the final cut. The most egregious example involves a school shooting and a series of invisible bullets flying around the environment. These moments are especially strange because they are not apparently problematic until the end of the film, when it’s clear they had no real meaning. Fortunately, there are not too many of them, they don’t last very long, and they seem fine when they happen, but looking back it’s clear that they either shouldn’t have been or should have been expanded upon.
If you have seen a Sion Sono film before, you will likely be shocked by this film. Not because any one moment is particularly shocking, but because it’s very much unlike films such as Suicide Club or Cold Fish. Whereas those films are horrifically violent with the ocassional joke to lighten (or darken) the mood, this one is pretty much constantly funny with the occasional horrific violence. In fact, Love Exposure is actually a strangely compelling romantic comedy/character study. The premise certainly reads like one, but the way it plays out is actually far more interesting. There are only five main characters for this nearly four-hour film, so there is excellent character development for nearly everybody. The timeline is far from straightforward, however, and flashbacks, voiceover, and timelapses happen sporadically to explain how a particular character made it to that point in the film. By doing this, a number of scenes are shown from multiple perspectives, and in some cases the versions are actually contradictory. That technique can work beautifully or completely fail, but I think Sono pulled it off. With less explanation, I don’t think it would have worked, but there is no shortage of dialogue to explain every single detail of any particular character, so it’s never actually confusing.
The acting is pretty fantastic across the board. All of the main characters have excellent performances behind them, and even as the characters changed their motivations or went in strange directions it was all (for better or worse) believable. The actor who played Yu was especially impressive, playing a fantastically convincing love-struck idiot who will go to absolutely insane lengths to get with the girl he loves. The actresses behind Yoko and Koike were also excellent. The weakest link of the main five was probably Kaori, since her character never had any notable changes. She did a fine job but there wasn’t much to work with. Her character was by far the least fleshed out and existed more as a figure for others to react to than anyone actually significant.
The entire film was also written by Sono, and he did a great job. Although I tend to dislike the use of religion in films, I thought it was used acceptably. While some of it was completely straight-faced, a much larger portion was tongue-in-cheek, and that made it much more enjoyable. It is not a heavy-handed film, and though Christianity (or the doctrine of Zero Church) can be found all throughout the film, it wasn’t unbearable or even particularly unpleasant. Aside from the religious aspects, the general screenplay was well-made. The dialogue seemed natural and appropriate for the characters (especially when dealing with perverted topics). I expect there were a lot of jokes I didn’t get due to cultural differences, but I was laughing through the whole movie regardless. It is honestly one of the funniest films I have seen in a while. The various romances are also nice, albeit creepy. At least one person in each relationship has some kind of ulterior motive, which creates some really nice tension. Love Exposure is very capable of being serious, and when it gets serious the film can be honestly affecting, but its sense of humor is what shines through in the end.
Visually speaking, the film is fascinating. A large portion of the film center’s around Yu’s peek-a-panty antics. He learns the ways of kung-fu style pervert photography and eventually becomes a famous photographer/filmmaker for a porn company. As one might expect, there are a lot of panty shots in the film. Easily hundreds of them. However, there is no actual female nudity (the male nudity is weirdly implied and hilarious/painful to watch). Much like the myriad of ways Yu takes pictures, Sono films in sharply contrasting styles over the course of the film. There are a lot of different techniques at play, and while some of them come off as bizarre (in a bad way), most of them work and give the film a very distinctive look and style. The colors are generally pretty vivid (especially in the churches) and give everything a nice sense of vibrance which makes certain parts of the film truly surreal. Technically, however, the film is all over the place. Some scenes look very film-like and others look like they belong on reality TV. It is never distracting to the point of irritation, and may not even be noticable to someone who isn’t paying attention, but it is a strange choice nonetheless.
The sound design is even better. I laughed every single time someone took a photo in the film. I don’t know where it came from, but the camera noise that is used for the peek-a-panty photos is so ridiculous that it is the only sound that could fit in with the camera yo-yos and other techniques being used to get those shots. The other sounds were all well and good, doing their proper jobs and whatnot, but I don’t think I will ever forget the sound of that camera. The music is likewise appropriate, though at times it was a bit overbearing, especially during scenes that are supposed to be emotional. For the most part, however, the music did its job well, and complemented the movie nicely.
There are so many things I want to say about Love Exposure that I can’t due to space and spoiler constraints. If I haven’t made it clear yet, you must to see this movie. It doesn’t feel too long, and it makes full use of every moment it has. Yes, there are occasinal issues but they do little to diminish the overall quality of the film. It’s funny, it’s romantic, and (though I haven’t mentioned it much) it’s got a fair amount of blood and gore as well. It is exactly the kind of insane that you will only find in something from Japan. With any luck, this initial release means that a wider theatrical or disc release is coming soon. Watch out for it, because Love Exposure is one hell of a film.