Although he had already directed a straight-to-video pinku a year earlier, Moonlight Whispers was the theatrical debut of one of the most interesting young filmmakers to come up in Japan in the late 90s. A former assistant to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Akihiko Shiota explored in this film the theme that has continued to fascinate him in his subsequent productions: the emerging maturity in adolescents.
Though based on a manga (by Masahiko Kikuni), Moonlight Whispers is anything but flashy superficiality. This tale of the awakening sexuality in two high school students is a poignant, emotional and touching drama. Takuya appears to be a student like any other. Somewhat withdrawn, he admires his beautiful classmate Satsuki, with whom he shares a long friendship and a talent for the sport of kendo. In the opening scene, we see the two practicing this sword fighting form, which has made them the bright young hopes of their school. In an empty sports hall, Takuya lets himself be beaten by Satsuki. Though she blames it on his lack of concentration, the truth behind his intentional defeat becomes clear as the story starts to develop: Takuya's burgeoning sexuality manifests itself in masochistic behaviour.
Since initially this only surfaces in very subtle ways, Satsuki remains blissfully ignorant and the relationship between the two grows stronger, blossoming into a typical teenage love affair. The happiness is interrupted when Satsuki discovers that Takuya has not only been collecting her soiled underwear, but that he has also been recording her on the toilet with a hidden tape recorder and taking pictures of her in secret. When she tells him in no uncertain terms that their relationship is over, Takuya begs her to stay, pledging total obedience and pronouncing himself "her dog". Although she wishes to have nothing more to do with this 'hentai' and subsequently avoids him completely, when she takes up with another classmate in order to hurt him, she doesn't realise that she is in fact giving in to Takuya's urges. But the boy's insistence leads her to discover that she too has a hidden side to her sexuality, and she soon starts to enjoy inflicting mental and physical pain on her former lover.
In the reviews that accompanied this film's limited US theatrical release in late 2000 (where it played under the title Sasayaki), the word 'disturbing' was used more than once to describe Moonlight Whispers. But despite the potentially provocative, or to some perhaps even offensive, subject matter, this film is anything but disturbing, and it is in this that we can recognize Shiota's true talent as a filmmaker. With two characters whose actions ring true in every scene and a marvellously restrained approach, Moonlight Whispers has become an unsuspectedly touching film. It portrays two young people struggling against themselves and against their environment, revealing along the way just how much, in the course of growing up, the self is shaped by the environment. Shiota arrives at the conclusion that stepping outside society is the only road open to his characters if they wish to be truthful to themselves as individuals. It's a conclusion that continues to infuse the films in his still short career, from his other production of 1999, Don't Look Back (Dokomademo Ikou), to his most recent film Harmful Insect (Gaichu, 2001).
But for all of a director's intentions, the ability to express them still hinges on the talents of his lead actors. Thankfully, in Moonlight Whispers, as in Shiota's later films, the young leads show an uncanny ability to express the innermost feelings of their characters. Kenji Mizuhashi in particular succeeds in bringing across the ambivalence in Takuya admirably. The implication of maturity in his masochism and his sad countenance contrasts strongly with his childlike appearance: the school uniform he wears and the bicycle he holds in his hands. The fact that he was much older than the character he portrays (he was 24 when the film was made) is impossible to guess from his appearance, but must have been a major factor on the strength of his performance. (The young actor confirmed this promise with a scene-stealingly exuberant presence in Takashi Miike's The Guys From Paradise / Tengoku Kara Kita Otoko-tachi, two years later.) Here Mizuhashi finds a good match in Tsugumi, who veers from lovestruck teen via broken blossom to fledgling sadist in a way that is always believable, all along managing to give Satsuki the aura of distant desirability that drives Takuya's actions.
With his two leads, Shiota creates a tale that ignores its own potential for provocation. Instead he delves deeper and dares to be much more profound, portraying the ambivalence in two young people whose choice is between forever denying what they are or going through misery in order to accept themselves.