(Gekko no sasayaki)

Directed by Akihiko Shiota. Japan. 1999.

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Takuya: "But I like it when you strike me on the head. Gives my dull life a shake. I like the jolt to my head!"

In Moonlight Whispers, the first film by Akihiko Shiota (Don't Look Back, Harmful Insect), a young Japanese student Hidaka Takuya (Kenji Mizuhashi) will do anything to prove his love for Kendo partner Kitihara Satsuki (Tsugumi). This includes licking the sweat off of her feet, listening to her having sex with a friend, and even jumping over a waterfall. Based on a manga (Japanese comic book) by Masahiko Kikumi, the film is not about kinky sex but about adolescents involved in a love so deep it completely distorts their sense of perspective. Shiota's wry observational camera captures a marginal but valid aspect of the adolescent experience as profoundly as Van Sant's Elephant captured the high school milieu that led to guns and violence.

Takuya and Satsuki are shy students at the same high school and belong to the Kendo club (a sport involving two single combatants who wear padded gear, then try to beat each other with either end of a padded stick). Satsuki is a top player and a most sought-after companion. Backed by the soft guitar melodies of Shinsuke Honda, the two friends begin dating and everything seems normal until she discovers that he is more interested in sniffing her underwear, photographing articles of her clothing, and making audio tapes of her going to the bathroom than in having sex. When Takuya puts a twist on the meaning of "puppy love" and tells her he wants to be like her obedient dog, she calls him a pervert and begins spending more time with another classmate, Uematsu Tadashi (Kusano Kitahara). 

With a fast turnaround that seems a bit out of character, Satsuki soon discovers that she finds pleasure in playing the dominating role and begins ordering the compliant Takuya around, asking him to do more and more outlandish things. The two feed off of each other, however, and continue a relationship of domination and submission with Takuya willing to go to degrading lengths to gain Satsuki's approval. In recent years, a number of theorists have suggested that sadomasochism can be a healthy form of sexual arousal among consenting individuals. While there may be a core of truth to this, this film is not a good example. There is a strong element of self-destruction and lack of self-respect in the behavior of the two lovers and Satsuki admits she has thought of suicide.

Although I'm not sure what the director had in mind in making this film, Moonlight Whispers touched me deeply and, even when I was repulsed by the behaviour of the characters, I felt a deep compassion for their pain. There is no trace of exploitation in Shiota's film and, while mental health experts might frown, the relationship feels organic to the characters and not pathological. The director makes no judgments, showing only the lengths people with low self-esteem will go to feel wanted and needed. I was reminded of the words of author Georges Bernanos when he wrote, "How easy it is to hate oneself. True grace is to forget. Yet if pride could die in us, the supreme grace would be to love oneself in all simplicity". What this brilliant and disturbing film says to me more than anything else is that we cannot truly love another human being unless we learn to love ourselves.

Howard Schumann
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