A four-hour film whose hero is a teenage voyeuristic panty photographer is a bit of a tough sell, which is why this film has lurked in the unwatched pile for quite some time. Yet, somehow, it ends up being more charming than sleazy, which is quite an impressive feat. The hero is Yu Honda (Nishijima), whose father Tetsu (Watabe) is a Catholic priest, albeit one not quite obeying that pesky celibacy rule. After his woman breaks up with him, he becomes a hardcore religious fanatic, insisting that Yu confess sins every day. Not wanting to disappoint his father, Yu starts committing sins deliberately, and finds perverse ones have the best impact on his father. So, he becomes a "panty shot" photographer, and his natural talent helps him become the leader of a gang of such reprobates. After losing a dare, he is downtown with them dressed in women's clothes, but when he sees Yuko (Mitsushima) being beaten up, rushes to help her. Yuko falls for her rescuer, not realizing "she" is actually a man, and Yu has to maintain the illusion. Worse is to come, as it turns out Yuko is the daughter of his father's mistress, and the pair have now moved back in with Dad.
Yeah, there's quite a lot going on here. And I haven't even mentioned the Zero Church, a cult organization, one of whose leaders is Aya Koike (Ando), who has set her sights on converting Tetsu and brainwashing him and his extended family into joining her group. That subplot occupies much of the second two hours, with Yu having to first rescue, then try to deprogram, Yuko. Safe to say, if there's a single over-riding theme here, it's how religion screws you up: while it will do so in a variety of different ways, the end results appears inescapable. It's a sentiment I'd only argue with in scope i.e. "may" rather than "must", though it's not something I'd say that requires four hours (cut down from six!) to lay out, even in the multiple of angles from which Sono attacks his topic. Despite its length, this does never feel particularly overstretched, with Yu coming over as a nice guy, who is trying to please his father, and ends up entirely embedded in a mess which is largely not of his making. He's a remarkably asexual pervert, intent on saving himself for his "Maria", as his devoutly-religious mother referred to the ideal woman.
Sono has a weird, yet effective, structure to the film. The first hour is from Yu's perspective, and tells the story up to his saving of Yuko - referred to as a "miracle" in intertitles. It then cranks back and shows us how Yuko reached that point. And then how Aya got there. Is it strictly necessary? Probably not. Neither is Yu's drag attire being a dead ringer for the heroine in the Female Convict Scorpion series of cult movies; I can imagine there are likely any number of other in-jokes that I may have missed. There's something to be said for a film-maker who is concerned solely with delivering on his artistic vision, and appears not to give a damn about commercial considerations. The results, as here, can certainly be a bit patchy [I'm not sure it wouldn't be a better film at three-quarters the length], yet it'll stick in the viewer's mind, well after most mainstream features have been long forgotten.