"I like it when you strike me on the head," professes the young Hidaka. "In that case, you're a pervert," responds his classmate and love interest, Satsuki. Here, in the high school gym, director Akihiko Shiota offers up the raw ingredients (saccharin-sweet teen romance, kendo matches, and S&M) for Sasayaki--an entertaining and engrossing look at youthful discovery, love, and gender-based power dynamics.

The story begins rather tamely; Hidaka is sent on a mission from his friend to deliver a love letter to Satsuki. Satsuki is quick to let him know that she is rather disappointed in the news. She was hoping that it would be him that was out to do the courting. With their feelings out in the open, the romance unfolds. Subtly sweet music and doubled-up bicycle rides through the rice paddies--it's a high school love on par with any crush John Hughes has ever penned. Before you know it, Satsuki is ditching school to visit Hidaka (who is homesick) and the two are losing their virginity.

Rather than follow the melodramatic path that's expected, however, Hidaka and Satsuki are lead down a road of psychological mind fuck. Satsuki, finding one of her socks underneath Hidaka's covers, becomes curious and searches the rest of the room, uncovering a stack of voyeuristic photos, various personal effects, and an audio tape of her urinating in his bathroom after their sexual encounter. Satsuki immediately dumps the boy. But it isn't that easy: Hidaka won't give up and, try as she might, Satsuki cannot shake him from her mind.

The power games begin. Satsuki goes on a date with her kendo instructor, Uematsu. Honoring Hidaka's wish to be "her dog," Satsuki orders him to follow them on their date. As she begins to understand her feelings, their roles become more extreme. The demands become more demented as Satsuki and Uematsu start having sex: Hidaka is locked in a cupboard and forced to listen, bound and gagged while looking on from behind a screen, and he cleans the dirt from her toes and the sweat from her thighs.

The script (co-authored by Shiota and Yoichi Nishiyama) does an excellent job of rising above what is expected from such a plot premise. Schoolgirl uniforms, teens having sex, voyeurism, and S&M--this film could easily become more of a softcore porn flick than an astute and humorous study of power in relationships. It is kept from this fate by its separation of eroticism and explicit sex. The "conventional" and more explicit scenes are uncomfortable, verging on violent; what we glean of the couple's romance comes from the rather simply enacted scenes of power and dominance. Albeit somewhat slow, the story is moved along by its short and awkward dialogue. One can only assume that that would be attributed to its being based on a popular manga, not on poor subtitles. Either way, it adds a dry humor that balances the story out quite well.

Where the film shows its weakness is in its visual composition. Shiota, working with director of photography Shigeru Komatsubara, begins the film rather strongly: a somewhat conventional camera frames the budding romance, using increasingly loaded angles and framing to accentuate Hidaka's obsession and devotion to Satsuki. However, with the script's change in power, the camera remains relatively static. Whereas the point of view of the film's first half revolves largely around Hidaka's gaze upon Satsuki, that gaze does not change to reflect Satsuki's power over Hidaka.

S&M romance is not really an original topic for the movies these days. Sasayaki, however, explores the idea from an original viewpoint, under the umbrella of the teen romance. The film's blend of humor, intelligence, and dementia gives the work something many narratives have forgotten about--multiple layers. It is filled with as many laughable moments as it is analytical ones. Sasayaki's weak spots are there, but the film definitely establishes Shiota as a strong new talent in Japanese cinema.