Love Exposure is an epic, four-hour celluloid love story involving martial arts, overwrought religious imagery, extremely over-the-top violence, infectious pop music, and lots-and-lots of upskirt panty shots. Yes, it is Japanese.
Love Exposure was shot and edited in three-and-a-half weeks. Two of its three pivotal leads are the Japanese equivalent of Justin Bieber and a member of the Japanese Spice Girls, respectively. At times it feels rushed, at times it feels awkward, and at (almost all) times it feels out-and-out ridiculous. Any of its scenes of potentially horrific violence are in danger of being undermined by utterly insane jets of blood, where any wound erupts like the Rockefeller Square fountain. In any respect other than the live-or-die emotions of teenage love, it makes absolutely no sense. It handles Catholicism in a way that makes Martin Scorcese seem restrained, and it goes for about ninety minutes before the main title shows—that’s right, the first ninety minutes are a cold open prologue.
Also, Love Exposure is great.
Released in 2008, Love Exposure is the brainchild of Shion Sono, a Japanese director most well-known in the West for the cult film Suicide Club, which many film nerds embraced as a more authentic and terrifying vision in the wake of the US success (and remakes of) films like Ringu and Ju-On, adapted for the white folks as The Ring and The Grudge respectively. Sono has himself made a number of J-horror films of his own, including Este: Hair Extensions, in which yes, hair extensions are haunted.
Love Exposure is his biggest Japanese hit (possibly because of its pop-star leads, but at least in part because of its genuinely entertaining appeal), but it is not well-known on American shores. It’s played some film festivals, but has no US DVD release and isn’t likely to receive one. Its week-long May run at the ultra-obscure Cinefamily was the first time it had been shown in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world, and that three years after its release. Why, you may ask, has a successful Japanese director, who has had some stateside notoriety, made a masterpiece it’s nearly impossible to see in the USA? One, it’s very, very, very, very, (very x 20) Japanese. Two, it’s four hours long.
Film fans should take none of these warning signs to heart. Though it’s longer than most double-features, it moves quicker than the pace of many Hollywood blockbusters. Though it can be viewed in some respects as an art film, its true intention (and result) is pure pop entertainment—it’s heartbreaking, exciting, sexy, and even romantic, not to mention incredibly funny. And, though at times it may feel like a mashup of many different genres and many different films that have influenced the director, it truly does not feel like a retread in any way—in fact, it’s one of the few films of the 2000s seen by this cynical reviewer that actually feels like something never seen before.
Love Exposure is, overall, a strange love triangle (a Bizarre Love Triangle, perhaps?), but it is primarily the story of Yu (Takahiro Nishijima, the aforementioned Japanese Bieber), a teenager who’s been raised Catholic in Japan, searching for his “Maria.” See, his loving mother died when he was young, and his last memories of her are praying to the Virgin Mary, and telling him, even as she’s dying, that he needs to find his Maria.
After the death of Yu’s mother, Yu’s father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) becomes a priest, a kind and popular priest. So kind and popular that he attracts the attention of Kaori (Makiko Watanabe), the kind of gal who’s been with too many versions of the same wrong guy and immediately falls for the priest, but can’t help seducing him. Eventually, Tetsu and Kaori are living in sin, with Yu forced to endure, until Kaori, fed up one day, leaves, shattering Tetsu. At that point, he re-embraces the priesthood in a much more hardcore fashion, and it’s really at this point that the film begins to take shape, because it is now that he forces his son Yu to come to confession everyday and admit all the wrongs he’s done.
Yu is a good kid, and really hasn’t done anything wrong, nothing that deserves a confession, so he begins inventing thing’s he’s done wrong (including, in a hilarious sequence, saying he refused to help an old lady cross the street, even as the visual shows him giving in and helping the lady). None of this is good enough, so Yu decides he must sin for real, in order to be able to confess to his father. He falls in with a gang of ne’er-do-wells from his high school, shoplifting and getting in fights. None of that is enough to gain a reaction from his father, though, so he and his new miscreant buddies decide that the only way to truly get a rise out of the priest is to engage in “pervert” activities.
It is here that the film truly jumps into absurdity, but as it becomes ridiculous, it also becomes interesting. Yu, in order to be able to confess true sins to his father, becomes a true pervert, learning to become a master of “peek-a-panty” pics. In a montage similar to one where Rocky would get in shape or someone in a bad eighties movie would learn how to ski really quickly, Yu obtains many techniques to snap pictures up girls’ skirts with the martial arts dexterity of a young Jackie Chan.
Even as he does this, though, he’s getting nothing out of it, no charge, beyond the ability to connect with his father through confessing his sins. As the film takes every opportunity to “perv out,” as it were, its main character remains an innocent, and that is important, as he will very soon meet his “Maria.”
That “Maria” is Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima, our Spice Girl), a pretty young girl who, because of an abusive father, hates men. She worships Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, and other strong female rockers (as well as Kurt Cobain[?]) and uses bad-ass martial arts skills to kick dudes’ asses all over town. As it happens, her abusive father brings Kaori (who loved-and-leaved the priest not too long before) home, and they bond, and when the relationship with the father ends poorly, Kaori and Yoko leave together.
The third angle to the tri- is Koike (Sakura Ando), another girl, one who, as it happens, gets photographed by Yu one fateful night. This is their first meeting, but definitely not to be the last. Sakura Ando gives what is probably the film’s most memorable performance, in what becomes its most interesting role, that of the sympathetic but still sinister (you can tell because she’s always creepily stroking a tiny bird, and flanked by some other hot, bored-looking mean chicks) villain.
The film takes a long time (but a less boring one than the exposition in this review) to introduce these main characters, but as soon as it does, it doesn’t stop moving from there. Once Yu the innocent pervert, Yoko the man-hating martial arts master, and Koike the mysterious other girl have been put in motion, so has the film. Yu happens upon Yoko about to engage in a brawl with a bunch of guys, but, because of a bet, he is dressed in drag. Still, he goes in to help her, and as he falls in love with her, his Maria, she falls in love with him too, but as a woman. Kaori and Tetsu eventually get back together, making the potential romantic partners brother and sister. Koike winds up at their school, befriending Yoko, for sinister reasons. Everything reaches levels of drama far beyond that of a whole season of afternoon soap operas, but plays out only in a few hours, a few hours that involve a religious cult that dresses all in white (and in which the women all wear very fetching ruffled tennis skirts—after all, this movie is Japanese) called the Zero Church, a porn company called Bukkake Sha, a terrorist bombing, lots of samurai sword usage (with jets of blood the result), a visit to the insane asylum, plenty of Shakespearean mistaken identity, and a recurring theme song that soundtracks many types of scenes perfectly.
Love Exposure is a truly bizarre movie, but even with its excessive length and its many potential pitfalls, it also is one of the greatest recent expressions of the joy that cinema can bring. It tells a unique story (really, a bunch of unique stories) with a lot of memorable pictures along the way. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and if you’re a dude, you’ll probably get a boner (oh yeah, another major plot point involves erections). What more can you ask from a film?