Another provocation from Suicide Club writer-director Shion Sono, Love Exposure slashes -- literally -- topics from religion to romance, karate to pornography to the Japanese family. It's a campy rampage that runs a few minutes shy of four hours, dooming what otherwise would likely be a bright future as a midnight movie.
The movie might pass for satire, if only the filmmaker offered a critique of the subjects he lampoons. But he just piles up topics and themes, more or less at random. Whenever he gets bored, he slices open a major blood vessel.
The first half is often engaging, thanks to its concerns, structure and energy. Sono introduces his main characters, three oddball Tokyo teenagers, and lets each tell his or her story. The narrative loops back on itself, its circular nature emphasized (overemphasized, actually) by repeating motifs from Ravel's Bolero, Beethoven's 7th symphony and a J-funk shuffle. Fueled by jump cuts, the rhythm is so breathless that the movie's title doesn't even appear in the first hour.
Once Love Exposure switches to linear storytelling, it actually feels more repetitive. Though the tale continues for another two hours, no truly unexpected developments or startling insights arrive.
Essentially, the film is a series of riffs on bad parenting, religion (which has little importance in Japanese daily life) and porn (which is much more conspicuous there). The central character is a rare Japanese Catholic, raised in a tradition that's much more demanding than his homeland's brand of Buddhism. ("You mean you believe in God?" one of the characters asks incredulously.)
Played by feathered-hair boy-band singer Takahiro Nishijima, Yu has been traumatized by both of his parents. Before his mother died, she made the boy promise to marry a woman who's just like the Virgin Mary. Later, dad becomes a Catholic priest, and demands that his son come to confession everyday. But Yu, a naive high-schooler, doesn't have anything to confess.
In searching for a sin worth talking about, he falls in with a bunch of guys who take "upskirt" photos of teenage girls' undies. In order to make this hobby more visually interesting, Sono presents it as a sort of martial art: Every panty shot requires the photog to spin, flip or tumble. Soon enough Yu becomes famous, and is offered a job by a porn company named Bukkake. (Google that one, if you dare.)
And inevitably, Yu meets his Virgin Mary, Yoko, played by the suitably angel-faced Hikari Mitsushima. Yoko just happens to be the surrogate daughter of the mercurial Kaori (Makiko Watanabe), Yu's father's sometime lover, and because of her father's abuse, she hates all men -- except, for reasons I'll leave you to discover, the late Kurt Cobain. Yoko soon develops a crush on Yu, but only because he's dressed as a woman when they meet. He lost a dare with his upskirt buddies, you see, and was required to hit the streets in drag.
Meanwhile, a manipulative girl with a bloody backstory has decided to recruit Yu and his father, as well as Yoko and her mother, to her cult. Aya (Sakura Ando) is a top lieutenant of the Zero Church, a "new religion" that (unlike the infamous Aum Shinrikyo) is based on Christianity rather than Buddhism. This eventually leads to what must be cinema's strangest reading of 1 Corinthians 13.
When Love Exposure finally ends, the characters — well, the ones who are still alive -- seem little changed. Nobody appears to have learned much from Sono's facetious upheaval. Except for Yoko, that is. In her final scene, she's wearing a longer skirt. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.