I Am What I Am


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

I Am What I Am
"Tamada uses the established language of romcoms, subverting it to express the ways that Kasumi finds fulfilment in life and to explore aspects of her journey towards true self-acceptance." | Photo: Queer East

Kasumi (Tôko Miura) doesn’t know, when she arrives at the meal, that it’s a ‘mixer’, an event designed to help people find prospective romantic partners. We’re plunged into it halfway through, as she’s laughing along with the others, having a good time. She enjoys socialising and everything seems to be going well. Then one of the guys begins to flirt with her and immediately there’s that awkwardness with which many viewers, for all sorts of reasons, will be familiar. Is it just that she doesn’t find this particular man attractive? No – it runs deeper than that.

Kasumi is not a lesbian. She has simply never had sexual or romantic feelings for anybody. This does not, in itself, make her unhappy. She feels complete and contented without a relationship. There’s a reason why asexuality is included under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, however, and that’s that she faces many of the same problems that she might as a lesbian in a heterocentric society. Other people’s attitudes make her day to day existence exhausting. On top of that – and unlike most gay people in modern Japan – she has no role models and no community. She feels utterly alone.

Shinya Tamada’s film does an excellent job of picking up on the constant background of social signals which, in a situation like this, one experiences as propaganda. It’s not just the constant pressure from her mother, who says “You have to marry someday” without malice but with concern, as if it were as vital as having to eat, an obvious requirement for existing in the world. It’s the mysterious codes used by other people, the way that a negative answer to “Have you got a boyfriend?” is taken as an invitation. It’s the television news announcing the marriage of a famous actor, the little comments about things she could do to enhance her physical attractiveness. Even when, in desperation, she tells people directly how she feels, she is met with suspicion, with accusations of lying. There seems to be no place for her in the world.

What may sound like a grim film is leavened somewhat by observational humour. We will see that actor on the news again when his marriage is on the rocks. Kasumi’s grandmother loves to talk about her three divorces. When Kasumi gets a job as a kindergarten teacher, she is startled to learn about the tumultuous love lives of her young charges, and there is at least as much caution as celebration in their tales of romantic yearning and broken hearts.

One intriguing aspect of this film is the way that Tamada uses the established language of romcoms, subverting it to express the ways that Kasumi finds fulfilment in life and to explore aspects of her journey towards true self-acceptance. There’s a romantic aspect to her sojourns on the beach, gazing out across the water, but it doesn’t require another person. She meets a gay man and a former porn star who provide inspiration, helping her to understand what she really wants, and we watch her align herself towards that with the same thrill as a romantic heroine finally acknowledging her desires. The final scene uses a classic motif which will leave viewers smiling and feeling as reassured, as fulfilled as any lovers’ embrace could make them.

Woven into this is a coming out story, as Kasumi gradually finds the language and the courage she needs to deal with her family issues. This is given depth by the detailed and sympathetic portrayals of other family members, who are dealing with issues of their own and have not found happily ever after in relationships in the way that fairy tales and conventional social narratives promise. By acknowledging these shortcomings, the film is able to celebrate love in all its other forms. It’s a tale of struggle and the need for courage, but it’s also full of warmth, and its screening at Queer East 2024 marks a milestone in bringing previously excluded stories to light.

Reviewed on: 21 Apr 2024
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I Am What I Am packshot
Kasumi doesn't know what love is and she doesn't have any feeling of romance. Due to her sister's marriage, her mother arranged a formal marriage arrangement without her permission. At the meeting, she finds a man who is just seeking a friend.

Director: Shinya Tamada

Starring: Tôko Miura, Marika Itô, Takumi Kitamura, Atsuko Maeda

Year: 2022

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Japan


QueerEast 2024

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