Upskirts for Christ: A Discussion About "Love Exposure"

Two critics explore Sion Sono's insane Love Exposure in dialog.
Joe Bowman

The success that Sion Sono’s Love Exposure has achieved, both at the Japanese box office as well as its impressive and seemingly non-stop run on the international festival circuit has no doubt surprised its creators. A four-hour RomCom (as the director refers to it) that exists at the intersection of religion and perversion hardly seems like an audience draw, yet it’s packing houses worldwide and was the recipient of both the Caligari Film Award and the Forum FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s Berlinale, where it had its international premiere.

The film recently had its New York premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival, and though it’s easily one of the best films of 2009, it’s an extremely difficult film to summarize, let alone write about. While it shares a great deal thematically with several of Sono’s previous films, nothing in his twenty-year career approaches the level of ambition, complexity, or audacity on display here.

Describing the plot intricacies is nearly as challenging as approaching the issues within. Sono juggles themes of secular patriarchy, sexual abuse and the varying scales of evil, perversity and, of course, love in a striking way. By resisting to condemn some of the obvious sources of the characters' pain, he permits the absurd to surface and still manages to keep the film deeply unsettling in a number of arenas. There are five severely damaged individuals at the core of Love Exposure. Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) turns to the priesthood after the death of his saintly wife, but when he falls for an emotionally unstable convert named Saori (Makiko Watanabe), he begins to transfer his own guilt toward his teenage son Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) through a sadistic confessional ritual. As Tetsu becomes increasingly irritated with his otherwise good-natured son's venial sins, Yu graduates to more asocial behavior, leading him to a Zen master who teaches the fine art and skill of upskirt panty photography. Despite proving to be a quickly-learned expert, Yu meets his greatest adversary Koike (Sakura Ando), an auspicious cocaine pusher as well as the founding member of a cultish deviation of Christianity called The Zero Church. Finally, there's Saori's step-daughter Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), a gorgeous, combative young woman whose searing hatred of the opposite sex gives way only to Kurt Cobain, and later Jesus Christ, after Saori shows her the similarities between the two men. Everything culminates at the first hour mark, dubbed "The Miracle." Blackmail, infiltrations, a Tootsie-esque subplot, erectile dysfunction, brainwashing, castration, pornography and selected Bible passages are only a hint of what’s to be found in the remaining three hours.

Over the course of a week, Andrew Grant and I exchanged a handful of emails in an attempt to nail down exactly what Sono was trying to accomplish with Love Exposure, and how he managed to do it so well.

ANDREW GRANT: I've been watching a bunch of Sion Sono films lately in preparation for an upcoming interview. As a director, he's all over the map stylistically. The hand-held guerilla aesthetics of Hazard are antipodal to the J-horror slickness of Exte: Hair Extensions. Yet none of his films even begin to approach the ambition of Love Exposure, both in sheer running time or in thematic complexity. When I first heard about the film (at this year's Berlinale) I found myself questioning the need for the epic running time. I'm now convinced that a shorter running time wouldn't allow him to delve deep enough into the complex and constantly shifting relationship dynamics.

JOSEPH BOWMAN: It's hard not to think of the film in relation to its running time. Unfortunately (or is it fortunately?) television has advanced so much that a film which chooses to push the three hour limit (let alone four) better have a good reason for doing so, and Love Exposure absolutely does. I agree that the film wouldn't have worked from cutting it, though I don't think it holds its momentum throughout. About mid-way through it really slows down and loses some of its sense of humor. However, there are character transformations that are only believable with the benefit of time.

GRANT: Shift of narrative perspective (including chapter headings) was something he used in Noriko’s Dinner Table, but to a much lesser effect. Here it's not until an hour in that we experience it, when we’re introduced to Koike and Yoko, and the shift is really quite powerful.

BOWMAN: One of the first things that struck me was the way in which the film handles some seriously dubious social topics -- rape, incest, molestation, religion, cults, school violence, transvestitism, and "perversion." The tone throughout is over-the-top, and yet the introduction of Koike and Yoko was uniquely unsettling. Koike's reminded me a lot of The Holy Mountain ("My name is Koike. I sell drugs and religion."), the absurdity of it all. Even though I laughed (quite a bit), there’s something disturbing about it, especially when Yoko talks about her near-molestation by her father. There are more daddy issues here than the entire series of Lost. But there’s significance to these issues, as it all links back to the Christianity theme. Within the film, father figures, including God himself, are the root of everyone's pain, whether they acknowledge it or not. For the three teenagers, it's absolutely that. For Tetsu and Saori it's the big man himself, though I suppose if we were to be very specific, it's the institution of Catholicism that's confounding Tetsu.

GRANT: The real puzzle for me is in nailing down Sono’s stance on Catholicism. Are we seeing a pointed criticism, or is it merely a conceit for setting up the divide between Yu and his father? Little is revealed about The Zero Church other than its obvious cult-like structure. The hypocrisy of both church and cult is evident from the get go: Tetsu takes the cloth upon his wife's death, yet carries on an illicit affair with Saori, who later tells her step-daughter that she wouldn't dare masturbate, as it goes against their religion.  Then of course there’s the idea the sin of perversity is the worst of all—it's even referred to on numerous occasions as original sin. All is forgivable—rape, incest, molestation, violence—just not peeking up a woman's skirt.

BOWMAN: I don't believe Sono is setting out to directly criticize Christianity, or any specific religion for that matter. All of the characters find Christianity for the silliest of reasons. Tetsu turns to it to fill the void of his late wife. Saori wishes to find a simple way to abolish her own sins/guilt. And then there’s Yoko, who becomes enamored because her step-mother compares Jesus to Kurt Cobain.

GRANT: That’s true. In fact, only Yu's mother, who we learn little about, seems to be truly pious and free from sin. This is passed on to Yu, who is forced to sin by his father, who is unable to address his own guilt. Even so, the idea of sinning purely for the sake of ultimate redemption is a subject of countless volumes on theological debate.

GRANT: Let me go back for a minute to the whole perversity thing—Hentai culture in Japan, while obviously not socially acceptable behavior, is still more out in the open than it is in the West. Hentai comics can be found at nearly every bookshop, and video stores are full of the kind of upskirt videos that Yu and his crew would happily make. Yet for Koike, Yoko and Tetsu, Yu's perversity is practically unforgivable. The irony of course is that Yu takes no sexual pleasure from this, as he is holding out for his Maria, as his mother requested on her deathbed.

BOWMAN: I think what's so offensive about Yu's perversity is that it's out in the open. All of the other characters' perversions, or whatever you want to call them, are within closed spaces. It doesn't matter that Yu isn't remotely aroused by what he's doing, because none of the people who are judging him, other than Koike whose motives are of a much different nature, know this or even try to understand it.

BOWMAN: As for Tetsu, he’s denying his human (or is it just sexual?) urges. He runs around in secret, which of course leads to that very Catholic guilt he lays on Yu. However, the most searing jab at the religion is the image of women it projects. All of the characters, especially Yu, are affected by that, and it goes deeper than just the Madonna/whore complex. Even Yoko, who knows little about Catholicism at the start, seems shaped by this idea. So does this subconscious stereotype within the church not reflect a greater cultural issue?  I'm still thinking about Koike and her two cohorts' first meeting with Yu and the fact that she "forgives" him after finding out he's a Christian. Though she falsely identifies herself as one, I never got the impression that her Zero Church was anything but a business ploy.

GRANT: For a while I looked at Koike and her sidekicks, all decked out in white, as some sort of perverse take on the holy trinity, but that soon changed. Excellent point about the closed spaces vs public—both Yoko and Koike's abuse by their fathers vs Yu's public humiliation in the classroom when the photos are scattered. I also agree that there's definitely a greater level of complexity at play with regard to the Madonna/whore complex, including the gender-bending antics, questioning of sexual orientation, and flirtations with incest. Both Koike and Yoko have histories of abuse, and their resulting hatred/distrust of men is justified. But the subconscious stereotype you speak of—does it exist outside of the church (at least within the context of the film), or is it merely a byproduct of becoming involved with the church (and its dogma)?  Then there's the Zero Church, where there's the perception (at least) that women have more power—Koike as the architect of Yu's (and his father's) downfall.

BOWMAN: While all of the characters seem affected by the roles defined by the church, the film doesn't align itself with those ideas. All of the women, sort of like in a Russ Meyer film, play the active roles, while all of the men are pretty ineffectual. Nearly every one of their actions is controlled by women, even the panty victims because, well, without them there would be no photos. And the only time Yu has the upper-hand with Yoko is when he's dressed as Miss Scorpion.

GRANT: The church as castrating, emasculating force...I like it! As for Yu’s gang, it’s interesting that there’s none of that yakuza machismo to be found.

BOWMAN: I think it's there, to a certain extent, but for some reason Sono is showing it from an alternate angle... where we see just how wimpy these guys actually are.

GRANT: To me the film is summed up during that wonderful scene on the beach where Yoko recites that lengthy passage from 1 Corinthians (“…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing”). It’s classic love-conquers-all, which I usually despise, but really works here.  In some ways the film reminded me of Wild at Heart in that they both share this idea about the amazing power of love, but also the darkness two must go through before that love can work its magic.

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