Telling a lengthy tale of lust and religion

Four hours fly by with Sion Sono's 'Ai no Mukidashi.' But does the extended running time allude to a self-absorbed director?

by Mark Schilling

Films that are extremely long (say, three hours plus) tend to be extreme in other ways as well — including the megalomania of their director.

One notorious early example is Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 masterpiece “Greed,” which originally clocked in at nearly 10 hours. Von Stroheim, notorious for his perfectionism, spent nine months shooting on location, while spending $500,000 — a fabulous sum for the time. His distributor, MGM, later slashed his film to ribbons — prints now in circulation commonly run to two hours and 20 minutes.

Sion Sono’s new film, “Ai no Mukidashi” (“Love Exposure”), may have a 237-minute running time, but its length is about all it shares with “Greed” and other classic — and lengthy — folies de grandeur.

When the film received its world premiere at the Tokyo Filmex Film Festival last November, the packed crowd at the Yurakucho Asahi Hall stayed uncomplainingly to the end — and gave “Ai no Mukidashi” the festival’s Agnes b. audience award. It has also been selected for the 2009 Berlin Film Festival’s Forum section, which specializes in films of an experimental nature. Meanwhile, distributor Phantom Film is juggling offers from festivals around the world.

Why is a four-hour film so popular, with audiences and programmers alike?

Instead of directorial grandiosity, Sono delivered an unpretentious mix of broad satire, much of which targets religion in various guises; stylish, if borderline silly, martial-arts action; and full-throated affirmations of love, voiced by the sweet-faced teenage hero, who also happens to be an enthusiastic voyeur.

Fans of Sono’s previous films, including “Jisatsu Circle” (“Suicide Club,” 2002), “Noriko no Shokutaku” (“Noriko’s Dinner Table,” 2005) and “Exte” (“Exte: Hair Extensions,” 2007), will find much of this familiar. Still, “Ai no Mukidashi” represents a departure — and gamble — for Sono, who has directed 14 feature films, beginning in 1990 with “Jitensha Toiki” (“Bicycle Sighs”) but never anything so ambitious — or commercially risky.

“I wanted to make it shorter, but somehow I just couldn’t,” says Sono, wearing his trademark hat, at the office of his distributor, Phantom Films. “I wasn’t trying to issue a challenge or anything like that.”

The first cut, at six hours, was trimmed at the fervent request of the producers, who no doubt saw their investment going up in smoke. Screenings that long would have to be limited to two a day, and might prove undendurable.

Sono obligingly produced a two-hour cut, but wasn’t happy with it. “It was too short,” he says. “It didn’t explain enough. Also, at two hours, the film was like a kamishibai (picture play for children).”

The script, which Sono wrote himself, originated in his friendship with a habitual taker of up-skirt photos. “He was my friend, but he became a pervert,” Sono says with an impish grin. “He didn’t do it to get sexually excited. He didn’t feel he was doing something wrong. For him it was like bird-watching.”

Instead of urging his friend to get therapy, Sono became interested in what made him tick. “I didn’t hate him for being a pervert,” he says. “I was rather sympathetic in fact.”

He also saw cinematic possibilities in his friend’s story, despite the ick factor. “I like exploring borderlines,” he explains. “In this film, it’s the borderlines between perversion and normality, the Catholic Church and cults.”

The film’s protagonist, Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), goes one step further than Sono’s friend, however: He becomes a pervert ninja, leaping and somersaulting as he surreptitiously snaps the panties of passing women. He is doing it not for erotic thrills, but to please his Catholic-priest father (Atsuro Watabe), who insists that Yu confess his sins — even when he has none. Once he takes up “candid” photography, however, he has plenty to tell Dad every day.

Then, while dressed in drag as Sasori — an iconic heroine from an early 1970s “women in prison” series (another of Sono’s obsessions) — Yu helps a hard-fisted, if definitely cute, teenage girl battle a gang of punks. Her name is Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), but to Yu she is a double of the Virgin Mary, who has been his image of the perfect woman ever since boyhood, when he associated her with his dear departed mother.

“In his mind, (these women) are all mixed up together,” says Sono “To him they’re symbols of perfect love.”

This blurring of the boundaries between religion and romance, as well as the film’s various comic digs at Catholicism, may strike some viewers as belonging to the long, dubious tradition of mocking Christianity in the Japanese popular media. Sono, however, insists that he has long been fascinated by the religion, though he has no urge to join it.

“If there were a Jesus Christ fan club, I’d join it,” he says. “I’ve been interested in Jesus for a long time. . . . I’ve often wondered what he would do if he were alive today.”

In one scene set on a lonely beach, satire gives way to sincerity as Yoko recites a lengthy Bible passage from the Book of Corinthians to Yu. Its best-known line (from the American Standard Version of the Bible): “But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

“It’s the most important scene in the film,” says Sono. “It states the central theme — that nothing is more important than love.”

The scene also reveals Yoko as a fierce-eyed teller of truths; that is, a woman more complex than Yu’s besotted imaginings.

But Biblical verses alone do not a drama make: A villain is also necessary. “Ai no Mukidashi” has a great one in Koike (Sakura Ando), a wily leader in a loony cult called Zero Church who takes more than a missionary’s interest in Yu — especially after he falls for Yoko.

Always wearing white and carrying her pet green parakeet, Koike is seductive, manipulative, ruthless. But like Yu and Yoko, she is not quite the two-dimensional cartoon she first seems. As a child she was violently abused by her father, until she came to hate all men. But she falls for the pure-hearted (if perverted) Yu.

“She’s really the weakest character in the film,” explains Sono. “She can’t express her feelings because of the way she was raised.”

But for all its layers of character and theme, “Ai no Mukidashi” is less knotty art than easy-to-digest entertainment. There are plenty of laughs, many of which are supplied by Akiko Watanabe as the priest’s blithely devout, daffily hypersexed lover. There is also a terrific score that includes everything from Ravel’s “Bolero” to an opening theme song by the psychedelic pop band Yura Yura Teikoku.

For those who know Sono’s early indie films, with their solemn ironies and minimalist emotions, the journey to “Ai no Mukidashi” may seem caterpillar- to-butterfly extreme. For Sono, however, it’s less a change than a coming out.

“Those early films were like school graduation projects: They were a kind of learning experience for me,” he explains. “But now I’m through with the New Wave. I’m making the kind of films I liked as a kid. I’m enjoying myself.”

“Ai no Mukidashi” is now showing.