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January 2010

Love Exposure

cast: Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima, Sakura Ando, and Atsuro Watabe

director: Shion Sono

237 minutes (18) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Third Window DVD Region 2 retail
[released 11 January]

RATING: 9/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Love Exposure

American independent cinema is currently dominated by a certain dramatic form: the solipsistic psychodrama. From I (heart) Huckabees (2004), to Election (1999); from Marie Antoinette (2006), to Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), American independent cinema has produced an entire cinematheque of films about quirky individualists trying to make sense of the world and their emotional surroundings. Like stations of the cross for Thatcher's children, these films follow certain patterns and use certain techniques. These patterns and techniques are so easily replicable that they are even coming to dominate American TV. What are the likes of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, and John From Cincinnati if not works of American independent cinema transformed into TV series? Even romantic comedies are getting in on the act with recent films like 500 Days Of Summer (2009) looking incredibly intelligent and thoughtful despite not having very much to say at all.

Japanese cinema seems to be in a similar position, albeit with a different dramatic form. The Japanese dramas that make it into European cinemas are also about quirky individuals trying to make sense of their world and emotional environment. However, rather than using the tools of the European art house directors to tell their stories, Japanese filmmakers have been inspired by the techniques of manga artists. Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers!, Kamikaze Girls, and Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers all follow the trend of combining introspective drama with cartoonish whimsy. Shion Sono's Love Exposure (aka: Ai no mukidashi) abides by this template but also expands it into a four-hour epic drama dominated by hard-ons and christianity.

Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima) is overshadowed by the death of his religious mother. A devout and beautiful woman, she makes Yu promise to only wed a woman like the virgin Mary. Soon after his mother's death, Yu's father (Atsuro Watabe) becomes a catholic priest; who is immediately tempted by a sexually and emotionally available young woman who turns to him in desperation. His faith hanging by a thread, Yu's father is summarily dumped, resulting in his transformation from a caring priest into a nightmarishly sadistic one who displaces his own shame onto his teenaged son, demanding more and more confessions from the faultless and saintly boy. Before long, Yu takes the hint and starts sinning in order to win his father's attention.

Initially, this starts with stamping on ants but he quickly graduates to joining a gang and then to taking pervy up-skirt photographs of the women in his area. In fact, Yu turns out to be rather gifted in this regard and, before long, he finds himself a master of a version of kung fu less interested in hitting people and more interested in women's pants. This leads him to encounter Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), who will become his sister and one true love, and Keiko (Sakura Ando), who will become his arch spiritual nemesis.

You see, while Yu may be a god among perverts, he is not actually turned on by the photographs he takes. He knows that he will only ever love one woman and his insatiable thirst for sin and transgression are all about earning the respect of his father. This marks him out as an 'original sinner' in the eyes of Keiko, the coke-dealing, religious icon-smuggling head of the sinister Zero Church cult. Hoping to recruit Yu to her religion, Keiko seizes on the opportunity to destroy his life when she sees him fall in love with Yoko, an equally fucked-up teenager who Yu saves from a gang of men while in drag.

The man-hating Yoko promptly falls in love with Yu's female secret identity Miss Scorpion, but Yu cannot bring himself to admit that he was Miss Scorpion and so Keiko takes his place, allowing her to destroy not only Yu's reputation and chances with Yoko but also the minds of Yu's family. This means that Yu has to draw on his skill as a pervert and his virtue as a man whose hard-on throbs only for one girl and rescue Yoko from the Zero Church and free his family from enslavement.

What is most striking about Love Exposure, is how beautifully paced it is. Despite being close to four hours long, the minutes fly by with never a longueur in sight. Sono beautifully combines storytelling techniques from traditional dramas and surrealist comedies to produce a film that is never dull because it is rooted in flawless characterisation. Sono's characters do not merely keep our attention, they actively demand it. It is impossible to watch Love Exposure without losing oneself in the twisted world views of the characters.

The principle idea behind Love Exposure is that what matters in life is some kind of intellectual discipline. A code that allows you both to excel and to fail´┐Ż A code that gives your life some kind of meaning... In the case of Yu, this code is a combination of Roman catholicism and perversion. Throughout the film, both lifestyles are presented as effectively equivalent. By devoting himself to up-skirt photography, Yu learns the skills that will ultimately grant him happiness, but at the same time, a parental devotion to catholicism results only in the misery of both Yu and his father.

It is possible to be a happy Catholic and an unhappy Catholic but it is also possible to be a happy pervert and an unhappy pervert. Yu's journey is about the integration of these two rigorous systems as Yu attempts to find love. Ostensibly the two systems clash terribly resulting in Yu being labelled a pervert despite never actually being aroused by any of the up-skirt photography he does. As he protests to Yoko late in the film: he is a pervert, but a pervert with dignity.

In effect, Love Exposure is a commentary upon the shifting sands of public morality and how issues of faith, identity, virtue, shame, sexuality and social pressure to be normal all need to be dealt with, even in a psychologically post-modern landscape such as our own. Sono's mash-up of catholicism and fetishism allows him to explore these issues in a way that is both serious and comical, sweetly innocent and grotesquely obscene. This weirdly meshing contrast is best summed up through two scenes of spiritual transcendence: in the first, Yu experiences his first emotion upon seeing the wind lift up the short skirt worn by the Virgin Mary-like Yoko and in the second, a much less stylised affair, Yoko weeps as she screams the text of Corinthians 13 into the face of the desperate Yu.

Other than the wonderful characterisation, cinematography and plotting, Love Exposure also boasts some excellent performances. Takahiro Nishijima is best known in Japan for being a member of the pop group AAA. On a purely physical level, Nishijima is an inspired bit of casting as his slightly odd looking face (bee-stung lips and manga hairstyle) is capable of both doe-eyed innocence and ridiculous buffoonery. Sakura Ando is also gifted with a fair bit of talent as she combines an aura of youthful innocence with body language that seems all about perversion and mean-spiritedness. Indeed, the duality man, the perverted and the transcendent echo throughout every aspect of this film including the fact that a film all about true love is filled with footage of attractive young women revealing their underwear.

All in all, Love Exposure is a real cinematic achievement and a timely reminder of just how different and vibrant Japanese cinema can be. At nearly four hours, it is perhaps too long to be seen in cinemas, but now that it is out on DVD, you would be foolish not to check out what is clearly one of the best and most quirky films of the year.

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