SADISTIC TEENS are common; plenty of young bullies occupy school settings both real and fictitious. But when it comes to stories about high-school romance, kids are usually depicted as innocents bewildered by new emotional and physical sensations. Departing from WB-style formula, however, Akihiko Shiota's remarkably adept 1999 debut feature transfers the master-and-slave hierarchy of the classroom into the adolescent bedroom. Based on a Japanese manga strip (often sexually explicit), Moonlight Whispers recalls the dark comedies of David Lynch, combining the sunshiny facade of youth with perversities suited to an S&M dungeon.
Casualties of love: Tsugumi (left) and Kenji Mizuhashi.
directed by Akihiko Shiota with Kenji Mizuhashi and Tsugumi runs February 2-15 at Grand Illusion
The story begins gingerly. Hidaka, a shy 17-year-old, collects some of pretty classmate Sutsuki's possessions: a pair of gym shorts, socks, a stick of lip balm. Lying alone in his narrow twin bed, he trembles while slowly applying her ChapStick to his own lips. Accompanied by strains of acoustic guitar, the scene is romantic, tender, and sensuous.
By comparison, when these two virgins later meet for sex, it's cold and clinical— portending a relationship of disturbing mind games. Little wonder that Hidaka (affectingly played by Kenji Mizuhashi) questions if the girl is what he actually wants. His passions are more fulfilled when smelling her shorts or listening to a secret tape recording of her—displacing her into fetish objects.
Moonlight foreshadows this tension early, when the two spar in kendo class, charging at each other with long wooden sticks, their faces protected behind grilled masks. "You can't be too close or too far," Hidaka advises. Appropriately, when Sutsuki (Tsugumi) discovers Hidaka's stash of her things, she reacts as if she'd been raped. Her outrage is less about the strangeness of the boy's imagination than its penetration of her very identity. Clearly, both teens have gotten too close. In the end, Moonlight's kinkiness obscures the more interesting question of how much intimacy youths—or all of us, really—can handle before supplanting it with fantasy.