Japanese poet and cult filmmaker Sion Sono defines himself as an anti-establishment artist partly out of cynicism and partly thanks to his romantic concept of libertarianism. Family and religion, the two biggest symbols of indoctrination in his films, are potentially nourishing institutions, but are always more fulfilling in theory than in practice. It’s why Sono, when he initially promoted Love Exposure, always talked about how as a teenager he used to worship Jesus Christ like a rock star. Like any religion, Christianity’s worth as a system of belief is more valuable symbolically than practically. Yôko Ozawa (Hikari Mistushima), one of the three lead teenage protagonists in Love Exposure, similarly idolizes Christ on an equal level with Kurt Cobain after her abusive father’s treatment pushes her over the edge. Yôko declares, “I don’t want any more family. I’ve had enough,” because families, cults, and social institutions in general don’t work in Sono’s films.
Love Exposure is, in a sense, Sono’s equivalent of the Great Russian novel. In it, his substantial disaffection for societal conventions is matched only by his monumental love for his spectacularly messed-up protagonists. These characters become deranged because they have to create their own belief system. There’s no God except for the ones that Yôko, Aya Koike (Sakura Andô), and Yû Honda (Takahiro Nishijima) make for themselves. God is represented by mundane authority figures, people who simultaneously project their own fear of loving someone else and lustful need to be loved. In other words, father/Father figures are all rotten to the core in Love Exposure, though they’re all rotten in unique ways.
Yû, the main protagonist throughout Love Exposure’s propulsive first hour, has a doozy of a backstory. His father, Tetsu (Atsurô Watabe), is a Catholic priest so he can’t marry the hot-to-trot Kaori Fujiwara (Makiko Watanabe) without being excommunicated. Kaori eventually leaves Tetsu, which leads him to take out his aggression on Yû, who becomes convinced that he has to compulsively sin so that Tetsu can absolve his sins and recognize him as his son. Being a “hentai,” or literally a “pervert,” is ultimately the surest path to finding deep-seated spiritual love since it’s the one that best guarantees that Yû meets Yôko, the girl he gets “erect from the heart” for.
Like Yû, both Yôko and Aya, the latter of whom tries to destroy Yû and Yôko’s budding relationship, basically make up their own rules as they go. But since every event on their respective gnarled paths to enlightenment only looks righteous to them, at some point or another, their conviction is inevitably tested. Yû eventually learns from a master pervert named Lloyd (Koji Ohguchi in a part that was originally written for Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman) that snapping photos of girls’ panties is in effect, if not in appearance, “…a divine act. Any act of holiness will be punished by the people. Just like Jesus was punished.”
One can’t help but scoff at this realization because of its solipsism. Sono recognizes how ludicrous Yû looks for taking Lloyd’s word, showing Yû training to be a better deviant in a hilarious perversion of typical Hollywood training montage sequences. Here, Yû isn’t an athlete getting ready for a competition, but rather a gangly 17-year-old preparing to sin while his master eggs him on with hilarious declarative statements like, “Do it,” “Go ahead and sin,” and “Feel the loneliness!”
Sono goes to great lengths to prove his dedication to unsound, if right-headed, ideas. Perversion, just like any other system of belief, is a perfectly valid form of finding true love with a capital L because, well, whatever works. Tetsu is right when he says, “We’re given healing powers without even realizing it,” because the “we” in that sentence is people in general, not just religious, familial, or psychiatric-based organizations.
Similarly, there’s “no promised land” at the end of Love Exposure, just a meaningful clasping of hands, a symbol of just how important finding the truth through the artificial is in Sono’s films. He indelicately represents love, which is often inseparable from lust and fetishism, and violence as being products of overheated imaginations: They have to be presented as being over the top because there is no such thing as a moderate affair or a moderate act of destruction. People in Love Exposure are comically absurd and highly flamboyant, but behind every ridiculous action is a clear-headed motive given convoluted expression.
Sono believes in his characters’ sense of agency. It’s why his films are mostly shot with off-kilter handheld digital cameras. Sono is forcing us to see his protagonists as an omniscient voyeur God might. We gawp at these characters not from up above but from midrange, as if we were looking through a peephole with no defined boundaries. Boisterous and vital, Love Exposure is a call to arms and Sono’s ebullient promise to continue spreading his gospel of radical self-fashioning.