Can you remember the first time something made you stupid with arousal? I don’t mean your hormones or the feeling of fabric against you in class one day. I mean the first time looking at something seemed like not just looking, when it became a physical act in itself. For Yu Honda (Takahiro Nishijima), the protagonist of Love Exposure, that’s a moment he’ll never forget. He’s dressed in drag in a black floppy hat and a black dress on a busy Japanese street, and he’s fighting alongside a schoolgirl he doesn’t know named Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima) as she kicks the asses of over a dozen male thugs. As she’s thanking him afterwards for rescuing her, the wind blows her skirt up and he sees her panties. His boner nearly doubles him over.
It’s the central scene in this ridiculously entertaining four-hour (if you recoiled, remember: Americans watch five hours of television a day) romantic epic by Japanese director Shion Sono, whose elastic style — as shape-shifting and gravity-defying as Yu’s hard-on — makes the film’s 237 minutes seem to fly by as quickly as losing your virginity if you have a penis. Yu might be a wide-eyed high schooler who’s never had a boner before, but he’s also an accomplished pervert who’s attended a secret martial arts training camp to learn the art of peek-a-panty photos, and he leads a gang around the streets of Japan using digital cameras and somersaults to snap shots of girls’ crotches. (He lost the photo contest with his gang that week, and his punishment was to dress up in drag and parade around in public.) According to Yu, he’s seen “millions” of panties. But these, these were special.
Something about the fact that he’s seen more crotches than you ever will makes it hard not to be moved by Yu’s first wood, no matter how many you’ve popped yourself. Even in an image-saturated world, this boner seems to say, you can glimpse something that moves you. This combination of jaded perversion and chaste purity is one of Love Exposure’s unique joys. Like Yu, you might have seen a lot of pictures, but you haven’t seen one like this, no matter how much of a pervert you are.
As the film begins, a young Yu promises his dying Catholic mother that he’d find a girl just like the Virgin Mary. After her death, his father becomes a popular priest, but after a failed romance his sermons grow darker. He forces Yu to confess his sins daily, berating and beating his son when he didn’t have anything to admit to. In a breakthrough moment, Yu decides he needs to sin regularly. He steps on ants. He breaks a classmate’s eraser. He shoplifts. Eventually, he realizes what would really give his father the kind of horrible confession he’s looking for: he decides to become a pervert. And he’s really good at what he sets his mind to.
As a director, Shion Sono demonstrates the same kind of dedication to his own weird, perverse craft that Yu does. An avant-garde poet and former experimental filmmaker, Sono’s best-known film, Suicide Circle (2001), was both written and directed in only two weeks. For Love Exposure, the studio gave him three and a half weeks to shoot his 300-page script after he somehow landed impressive enough leads (Takahiro Nishijima, who plays Yu, is a member of the Japanese pop band AAA). That shooting schedule may have contributed to the film’s television-like pacing, manic energy, and the feeling of consistency despite the film’s continuous genre-jumping.
Which is a good thing, because after Yu meets Yoko, the plot goes ballistic. It bounces to the sexually-abused, man-hating Yoko’s backstory. And the backstory of the mysterious Koike (Sakura Ando), a parakeet-loving girl who cut off her abusive father’s dick, murdered a bunch of classmates, and now belongs to a cult that’s really just a front for selling cocaine and making money. She’s also spying on Yu and his family. After wading through Asian extreme gore, Love Exposure then transforms into a Japanese update of lighthearted Shakespearean genderbending, as Yu tries to woo Yoko, who hates him (and all men), by resorting to wearing the drag costume he first rescued her in and creating a female alter ego for himself named Miss Scorpion. Then there are cults, an insane asylum, a contract with a porn company, a lesbian romance, a faux brother-sister romance, shootouts, swordfights, kidnappings, and the most gripping recitation of Corinthians 13 (from the Bible, heathen) ever put to film in Japanese.
If all that sounds intimidating, it’s not. Sono’s a lucid storyteller; no matter how warped the story becomes, it’s always as clear as the Virgin Mary’s soul. And while Sono has plenty of gorgeously subtle points to make about fetishes, love, and religion’s obsession with purity, Love Exposure will satisfy the drunkest audience member just as much as the most intellectually demanding. For all its subversive ambition, the film’s still a cheerfully romantic crowd-pleaser that revels in giving pleasure, not just ideas. Yu pops a lot more boners, but they’re all for Yoko’s crotch. What’s a fetish but the purest of love finally given form, finally made tangible?