Published December 1, 2000
Gekko No Sasayaki or “Moonlight Whispers” is a brilliant little Japanese film, written and directed by Akihiko Shiota, about young love which suddenly spins out of control and becomes sexual perversion. Not a very promising subject, you might think, and the quasi-clinical dimension of the film, though it has a serious point to make, is always flirting with excess. This should not be surprising, as the movie is based on a Japanese comic strip, called “Gekko no Sasayaki,” by Masahiko Kikuni. In other words, excess is built into the thing from the very beginning, but it is a Japanese sort of excess which, no matter how bizarrely remote from everyday experience somehow manages, as American-style cartoons and cartoonish movies almost never do, to retain some kind of tether to reality.
In the case of Sasayaki, Shiota grounds us as firmly as he can in everyday experience at the beginning so that when we start towards the higher elevations of strangeness we take with us those very strong impressions from ground level. We begin with two high-school pupils, a boy called Takuya Hidaka (Kenji Mizuhashi) and a girl called Satsuki Kitahara (Tsugumi), who are sparring partners during the after-school practices of the school’s championship kendo team. Kendo is a sport involving two single combatants who pad up and then try to whack each other with either end of a padded stick. It looks like kayaking transformed to a martial art. Satsuki is one of the school’s top players and Hidaka rather a duffer who is happy to play the role of her practice target. At one point he tells her, “I like a jolt to the head. It wakes me up.”
From such small seeds grows the exotic shrubbery of perversion. And yet the perversion, which we shall get to in a moment, is never merely pathological. Always we are being persuaded, though not always with equal success, to see it as growing out of a normal human relationship. As the film explains to us at the beginning, “Kendo is all about keeping the right distance — not too close, not too far away.” Love is like this too. But in Hidaka and Satsuki we have two people who lack the ability to judge emotional distances. Where they end up may be a long way away from anything that most of us have any acquaintance with, but where they started out from is where we all start out from.
One day, a friend of Hidaka’s, Maruken, tells him that he is romantically interested in Satsuki and asks him if, as a friend of hers, he will ask her for a date on his behalf. Hidaka agrees, but as in the old story of John Alden and Miles Standish, Satsuki asks Hidaka to speak for himself. “I hoped it would be you who asked me out,” she tells him. Hidaka promptly does so, telling her that the only reason he has not done so hitherto is that he never would have dared hope that she could be interested in him. “You were an impossible dream for me,” he tells her. It would be a sweet thing to say in any other context, but here it is already suggesting disturbing possibilities about Hidaka’s need for humiliation.
For a short while the two of them make an attractive couple and are very happy together, so that we might almost be willing to overlook the troubling details of Hidaka’s psychological makeup. He keeps souvenirs of Satsuki in a locked drawer. These include photos taken with a telephoto lens and items of underclothing he has taken from her locker. When she finds an audio tape he has made of the sounds of her using the lavatory, she angrily breaks it off with him, calling him a “pervert.” Rather pathetically, Hidaka agrees. He is a pervert, he says, but calling himself one is an example of his perversion, rather than a way out of it.
Once again Shiota tries, not always with complete success, to keep us in touch with ordinary, non-perverted experience. Satsuki says that “My sister told me, once you give yourself to a man, he either loses interest or he becomes obsessed, one or the other.” Hm. Surely there is some truth in that, isn’t there? So then Hidaka’s obsession, although it may be on the outer reaches of normal, is still in that general vicinity? For the time being, at least, this seems to be true. But then things start to get really weird.
I won’t go into too many details, since out of their context these might seem — they would to me — off-putting. Perversion, like other forms of psychic sickness, naturally forms a barrier of pity between the characters and a non-perverted audience. But it is Shiota’s great achievement to preserve these characters’ humanity in spite of their perversion, mainly by showing how the perfectly normal schoolgirl, Satsuki, is drawn in spite of herself into the orbit of Hidaka’s perversion. The relationship revives in another mode when Satsuki’s anger with Hidaka induces her to play into his hands by assuming the sadistic role that his masochism has all along craved from her. The ending is somewhat jarringly comic, though its black humor is less guilty for the cartoonish quality of the whole. This is another way of erecting barriers between the audience and the characters, but one which allows the disturbingly human side of the latter to survive.