Sae Suzuki, who studied under Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Nobuhiro Suwa at the Graduate School of Film and New Media of the Tokyo University of the Arts, presents with My Identity (2019) her first feature film.
Rei (Hinata Arakawa), a half Japanese/Taiwanese girl, is bullied at school. One day, after escaping her bullies, she accidently overhears two girls talking about an online forum where runaway girls look for sugar-daddies (kamisama). The very same day, Rei, fed up with the bullying, attacks one of her bullies at the local park.
Rei’s mother (-), informed by Rei’s school about her attack, resorts, as usual, to the act of corporal punishment to in ‘engrave’ how much trouble her behaviour has caused for her. After her mother leaves for work, Rei checks out the online forum for sugar-daddies and arranges a date.
What My Identity explores is not bullying as such, but the subtle racism that (quite often) structures the act of bullying. Utilizing signifiers as ‘ugly’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Can you speak Japanese?’, and ‘Go back to your country.’ have no other intention than to Other the other, Rei in this case, at the symbolic level. The aggressive use of these kind of signifiers, as born from an ill-placed belief in Japan’s homogeneity, aim to underline that Rei does not belong her, that she has no place to be who she wants to be as ego and who she is as subject.
Rei’s situation is even more problematic when we take her problematic relation to her mother into account. What is truly problematic in their relation is not so much her mother’s use of physical punishment, but her accompanying speech. What does this speech show us, if not that the mother is heavily preoccupied with her own image as foreigner within Japanese society? She is in fact so preoccupied with how the Japanese others might perceive her – ‘They think I raised a bad child because I’m a foreigner’ – that she effaces the very subjective reality of her bullied daughter. In other words, her mother is unable to give Rei a place where she can speak as subject.
It should thus not surprise us that this suffocating situation, a situation suffocating the expression of subjectivity and problematizing the assumption of one’s ego, causes Rei to run away from home. By mere chance, Rei meets Aoi (Kaho Seto), an office lady who is victim of gossip at her work as well as of unwanted and rather obsessional attention from a male colleague. When this male colleague violently attacks her in her apartment for supposedly having played with his feelings and Rei hits him on the head – she may or may not have killed him, they see no other option than to flee Tokyo.
What the development of the relation between Rei and Aoi, a relation not marked by any form of subjective suffocating, shows is that Aoi’s position of openness allows Rei to assume a place to speak from. Whereas she, as subject, was literally and figuratively silenced in her relation to her peers and her mother, she is, in relation to Aoi, able to speak, i.e. give expression of her ego, and assume her place as subject. It is, in fact, only by being allowed to assume a subjective place to speak – it is a relational matter, that one is able to love and secure this place against those who fail to respect it.
Sae Suzuki chose a rather simple cinematographic approach to frame Rei’s adventure. But while her composition – a concatenation of static shots with only rarely a moment of cinematographic movement – is uncomplicated, her reliance on static shots does enable her to utilize geometry and craft some truly pleasing shot-compositions. One of the most pleasing shots of Suzuki’s narrative are, in our view, the shots framing the recurring blissful picnic moments.
My Identity is a very enjoyable debut by Sae Suzuki. With a clear narrative precision and with a pleasing cinematographic simplicity, Suzuki confronts us with the effects the still prevalent but false image of Japanese homogeneity can have on the coming-into-being of those subjects not fitting that idealized nationalistic image. But Suzuki’s narrative, besides being a plea to accept those who are supposedly “different”, is also a tender and sweet appeal to Japanese society to give every subject the possibility to assume, with respect to others, a subjective place of speech.