Ryan’s review published on Letterboxd:
It's a marvel how lucky we are to even live in a world with a 4-hour film as beautifully sacrilegious, operatically crude and gleefully inappropriate as Love Exposure exists. Sono's first film in the self-proclaimed 'Hate' Trilogy, a trilogy whose foundation lay in the observations on the emotions of love and, appropriately enough, hate. It's a comfortable candidate for best coming-of-age film of recent decades, this giddy celebration of sexual awkwardness and pop culture dorkery manages to indulge in just about every fantasy of the young adolescent mind even as it thoughtfully examines the implications of what it’s showing, taking on the roles of psychiatrist and fast-talking patient alike.
Its narrative of sexual repression, religious shaming, up-skirt photography and domestic abuse will make sense only to the most immature at heart, taking the biggest emotions of the teen years – angst, loneliness, lust, humiliation – and using them to drive a kaleidoscopic fiction that moves from horny boys’ adventure to dark psychological thriller to sinister cult story in a vibrant world of outlandish solutions to confusing problems created by damaged psyches. Despite sounding incredibly broad, everything comes together so perfectly, and even though it might sound insane that protagonist Yu goes from priest’s good boy son to an underground fighting hooligan, to a kung-fu upskirt photographer, everything flows so well and you’re left laughing and crying along with the film. The absurdist nature of the up-skirt photographer training montages for example never fails to send me into fits of laughter, the exuberant length they go to in each setpiece to get the perfect panty shot is gleefully inane.
Preposterous and yet deeply moving, Love Exposure depicts a fucked-up love triangle between three teens rebelling against their Christian parents: Yu, the son of a Catholic priest, feels compelled to sin and develops a passion for peek-a-panty photography; Aya, with scissors, cuts off her sleeping father’s erect penis (the hard-on is pixelated, but the spurting blood isn't, congratulations Japan's censorship laws); meanwhile, Yoko disavows every man who isn’t Jesus Christ or Kurt Cobain, and is then lured by Aya into a brainwashing group called the Zero Church. Adding a hefty amount of religious connotations all throughout. Whether through an accepted religion like Christianity or through cults such as the film’s fictional Zero Church, Sono uses the subject as a means to distort his characters’ views on love. Yu’s idea of love, tied to his evangelical mother, is to find someone as pure-spirited as the Virgin Mary; Yu’s father, a priest, struggles with his desire to love and feel love once his wife passes away; Yoko’s doubts towards her sexuality conflict with her religious beliefs; and Koike, who for all intents and purposes is the film’s villain, is essentially programmed to view love (or more specifically sex) as a sin which ultimately forms the basis of her entire character in the film. Love Exposure essentially deconstructs religion, accepted or otherwise.
Packing enough plot for a movie twice its length, Love Exposure races through its events, yet this is still one of the most cohesive works Sono has put out thus far because the film never loses focus in its epic account of the bewildering formative years of sexuality and morality, and is exhilarating and emotionally complex from start to finish. A big part that helps it maintain its momentum, besides the obvious excellent editing, is the use of music throughout the film. Nearly every scene contains music in its background, to either maintain or build momentum, set the tone of the scene or to completely serve as juxtaposition to the unfolding on-screen happenings. It's an aspect of the film I don't see talked about often enough, possibly because it's highly effective implementation renders it unnoticeable.
The film may dedicate its longest take to a recital of 1 Corinthians 13, presenting a more mature perspective on the nature of love that profoundly contrasts with the boyish naiveté that knowingly dominates the feature (it’s crucial to the film’s portrayal of coy, distant lust that no one but the parents in the entire 4 hours actually engage in sex activity with one another), but thank God that Sion Sono never learned to put away childish things because otherwise we may never have got such a rich, invigorating career of meaningful outrageousness and inventive brutality, nor would we have got the final few minutes of Love Exposure, which can be described with confidence as the greatest erection-related climax in cinema history.
Love Exposure is many thing, including a thesis taking on the topic of love, the various forms in which love is expressed or perverted within our society, from family, religion, friendship, and sex. The absolute consuming obsession we as humans have for other humans, aside from our own mortality. It spite of all its depravity (childish or otherwise) and hatred it manages to maintain an air of love and adoration that manages to transcend biological impulse and grade school poetry, somehow reaching to some strange depth of the human soul that we rarely get to glimpse into.
Love Exposure can be seen for Sono as a culmination of all that's come before; the fanatical cult of Suicide Club, the breakdown of family relations and multiple different chapter specific perspective narrative structure of Noriko’s Dinner Table, the troubled parental abuse and damaged psyche of Strange Circus, the disillusioned youthful deviency of Hazard, the unusual fetishism of Exte: Hair Extensions. It's all used a stepping stone as Sono incorporates elements of adventure, comedy, drama, social satire, parody, romance and soft porn, while dealing with themes like religion, family, love, sex, adolescence, hedonism and guilt. There's bit of something for everyone, and is an emotional rollercoaster throughout, in what I can confidentially proclaim Sion Sono's magnum opus.