by Steven Boone
Hentai means “pervert” or “weirdo” in Japanese. It’s the kind of thing you shout at somebody you’ve just spotted feeling up women on the Tokyo subway. It’s a badge of shame.
In Sion Sono’s LOVE EXPOSURE (2008), Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), a virginal high schooler, finds himself labeled hentai after several misguided attempts at provoking his aloof, perpetually grieving widower father, a Catholic priest. Since Dad is also, strangely, the boy’s father confessor, Yu figures confessing to some truly outrageous sins will make Dad care again. He starts running with a street gang. Each week, he dutifully reports every street fight and petty theft in the confessional. After a disastrous affair with a flighty woman breaks Dad’s spirit anew, none of Yu’s “sins” can break his zombie-like state.
Yu’s pals convince him to up the ante by joining a ring of upskirt panty photographers.
Among 100,000 other things, LOVE EXPOSURE is about Yu’s rise in the porn biz as the “Prince of Peek-a-Panty”—a stealth photographer of ladies’ underwear in public. His work involves flinging a camera on a retractable cord between the legs of unsuspecting female passersby and snapping the shutter.
Yu honestly believes this “sin” will startle his father out of his ascetic stupor. He accepts every insult and injury in pursuit of this goal—including being called, by every upstanding citizen who discovers his occupation, “Hentai!!!!”
As Yu comes of age in a cruel, hypocritical adult world and meets Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), his first love (while, for reasons you’ll understand only when you watch the film, he’s dressed as a girl), it becomes clear that he’s a hentai not because he sticks cameras up skirts but because he loves, openly, earnestly.
Today, almost no one dares to say, “I love you.” It has to be, “As a poet would have put it, ’ I love you,’ or some kind of a distance. But what’s the problem here? I claim that when the ancients say, ‘“I love you,” they meant exactly the same. All these distanciations were included. So it is we today who are afraid that, if we were to put it directly—“I love you”—that it would mean too much.—Slavoj Zizek
Trouble is, Yoko is the product of sexual and emotional abuse. The only men she does not despise are Kurt Kobain and Jesus Christ. She even picks fights with men in the street—and wins.
In fact, Yu meets her while she’s in the middle of demolishing a street gang.
Even so, he loves Yoko with a purity and devotion that pose a threat to the machinations of church, state, big business and high school: When Aya (Sakura Ando), the drug-dealing teen leader of a Scientology-like cult named the Zero Church…
attempts to convert Yu and his father in order to lure hordes of troubled Catholics, a domestic war begins. Aya wants to seduce and destroy Yu.
Just like Yoko, Aya is the product of sexual abuse. She uses her precocious skills as a power broker to exact vengeance upon the world for her shattered psyche. Secretly, she desires Yu as strongly as she despises and envies his purity.
Meanwhile, Yu’s friends among thugs, delinquents, pervs and pornographers revere him as a troublemaking, moneymaking badass, but his true motives are beyond their comprehension.
All he wants is to love and be loved. His mother’s death when he was very young left a lifelong void that his devoted but remote father could not fill.
Yoko appears to be to the saintly “Mary” type that his deeply religious mother promised would come along one day.
He’s also applying some professional advice from his Peek-a-Panty sensei to his love life:
Aya is determined to eradicate any possibility of romance between these two. She seduces Yoko and charms Yu’s father before exploiting their insecurities to install herself as the family’s spiritual guide. (In a knot of plot twists that you’ll find preposterous out of context, Aya exposes Yu’s secret hentai life at his high school, orchestrates events so that Yoko ends up being Yu’s virtual stepsister and steals his drag alter ego in order to make Yoko fall in love with her, not Yu.)
Aya’s use of surveillance and duplicity to infiltrate a family makes a great metaphor for the way our institutions maintain power in the Facebook era, through calculated “frenemy” gestures.
Though the “hentai” label alienates everyone in Yu’s life, he keeps to his conviction that love will ultimately power through the web of lies. The final hour of this nearly four hour movie punishes and rewards his moral determination as powerfully as the ending of SANSHO THE BALIFF burnished a son’s faith in his dead father’s teachings about compassion.
In America, Hentai refers to Japanese pornographic animation, the kind where tentacle beasts ravage petite, big-breasted nymphets. There is no such animation in LOVE EXPOSURE, but its goofily operatic, hyperkinetic, plot-mad style is straight out of mainstream anime.
Despite sitcom-broad satire and a style that seems to encompass Nicholas Ray, Richard Lester, Nikkatsu gangster and taiyozoku flicks, DRAGONBALL Z and Shohei Imamura’s THE PORNOGRAPHERS, LOVE EXPOSURE is ultimately wrapped up in the fate of its characters, not empty spectacle or provocation. Its great special effect is allowing folks we’ve written off as losers, sociopaths or deviants to emerge as something a lot harder to judge or dismiss. Certain of these twists made my heart explode.
This web page is called HENTAI LAB in tribute to LOVE EXPOSURE. HENTAI LAB will not examine subway gropers or filthy cartoons. We embrace the term here because poet-filmmaker Sion Sono put it to such sublime use in his masterpiece, sticking up for those of us who dare to love passionately in a world that runs on fear, hostility, greed and manipulation. We are the true perverts, without shame. But there is a price to pay.