Stellar Toko Miura performance anchors “I Am What I Am” (Film Review)

Reviews TV/Film

I Am What I Am Sobakasu Toko Miura

I Am What I Am (Sobakasu)
Film review by David Cirone

– Screening as part of the Japan Cuts Film Festival on Friday, July 28, 2023

Summary (from the Japan Cuts website)

North American Premiere. Thirty-year-old Kasumi (Toko Miura in her first starring role since Drive My Car) works at a call center and lives at home with her family, often pestered by her worrisome mother who desperately wants her to get married, even going so far as to set up an omiai or arranged marriage interview to marry her off. The reality is that Kasumi cannot harbor romantic feelings for others. Aided by her cheerful and equally outsider friend Maho, played by the ever-charming Atsuko Maeda, Kasumi simply desires to live without the rigid gender roles and expectations that dictate how young women should submit themselves to constructed ideals of love and marriage. An anti-rom com by any measure, I Am What I Am is a liberating departure from the conceit that romantic love equates happiness and a life fulfilled.

Constantly under pressure from her family to find a marriage partner, Kasumi (Toko Miura) tried to find a path toward happiness that doesn’t involve sex or romance. She’s just not interested. No one believes her, because feelings like that just can’t be possible in this world, so she lives a solitary life of being misunderstood. The only solace she can rely comes when she spends time alone at the beach in her hometown of Shizuoka, the only place she can get away from the voices that tell her she’s living the wrong life.

The plot of I Am What I Am shares the same quiet rebellion as its protagonist, and Atsushi Asada’s script is determined to sidestep structural norms. The conflicts in the story are all internal, and Miura does a fantastic job of conveying her character’s struggles with just a look or subtle physical shift. It’s impossible to stop watching her, even when the scene doesn’t seem to be accomplishing anything other than giving us conversations about society’s unfair judgments.

I Am What I Am Sobakasu Toko Miura Atsuko Maeda

I Am What I Am Sobakasu Toko Miura

The film’s best moments come when the quiet pace is broken, mostly due to a riveting performance by Atsuko Maeda as Maho, a young woman who returns to Shizuoka after a five-year career as an AV actress in Tokyo. She takes an instant liking to Kasumi, and they find solace in each other’s extreme and uncompromising views of individual freedom.

The scenes with Kasumi’s family are wonderfully entertaining, but brief. I really wanted to see more of this dynamic, and Marika Ito brings some much needed spitfire energy to her role as Kasumi’s younger, pregnant sister.

I Am What I Am Sobakasu Toko Miura

While Miura’s performance is consistently enjoyable, the film insists on putting Kasumi in situations where she seems unbelievably ignorant of consequences. When she travels to a spa resort for an overnight stay with a young man, she’s shocked that he thinks their relationship might have some romantic potential. When she impulsively decides to have Cinderella angrily rebuke Prince Charming for a children’s day care presentation, she’s surprised when the administrators and parents are unhappy with the result. Heavy-handed moments like this position Kasumi as “victim of society”, and it doesn’t match her hyper-awareness of what society wants from her.

The film’s climax feels authentic, but uncertain. Kasumi might have discovered an answer to her problem, but will it last? Does it need to last to be worthwhile, or is something temporary all we can hope for in life? I Am What I Am is a film more about questions than answers, but Miura’s detailed and nuanced performance is definitely seeing.

Japan Cuts 2023
Presented by Japan Society (New York)
July 26 — August 6, 2023