My Identity (神様のいるところ, Sae Suzuki, 2019)

“You’re not the only one suffering because of language barriers” the heroine of Sae Suzuki’s My Identity calmly explains to her mother after spending a few days away perfecting her language skills. My Identity (神様のいるところ, Kamisama no Iru Tokoro) is perhaps less about identity in itself than the difficulty of communication but nevertheless finds a young woman displaced, quite literally pushed out both by her frustrated mother and by a society which continues to be fiercely intolerant of difference. What she realises however, is that she’s not the only one feeling lost, discovering an alternate maternal figure in an orphaned adult herself at the mercy of an unforgiving and judgemental patriarchal society. 

As we first meet her, high schooler Rei (Hinata Arakawa) is physically pushed out of her family home, the door closed behind her as her mother lays in to her father with accusations of fiscally irresponsible infidelity in her native language. As we later discover Rei is half-Taiwanese and in fact lived on the island until she was five but now feels under-confident in both a perhaps more familiar Mandarin and the Hokkien between which her mother switches freely. At school meanwhile she is taunted by two horrible boys who bully her for being “Chinese”, calling her “creepy” and “ugly” while questioning her ability to speak Japanese. When they tear up a thank you card she’d written in Chinese claiming not to understand it she finally loses her temper and fights back, hitting one of the boys on the head with her backpack. Ironically, she is the one that gets into trouble. Her mother takes a cane to her legs, angry most of all it seems that people will think that foreign mothers raise badly behaved children and will continue to look down on her. Rei just wants to connect with her mother, but her mother isn’t listening. 

That might be why she makes unwise decision to look into dodgy compensated dating after hearing about a forum where “gods” congregate looking to pick up teenage girls. She thinks better of it at the last minute only to be chased by a weird old man claiming to be worried about her which is how she bumps into Aoi (Kaho Seto) who cooperates by pretending to be her responsible adult. A youngish office worker, Aoi has problems of her own and has apparently been out on a night of heavy drinking with a colleague, something which becomes a source of gossip among the other women at work who seem to universally dislike her. She’s coming up for a transfer, but is aggressively harassed by her boss who tells her that he’s going to wait for her when she gets off, causing her to alter her schedule in order to avoid him. 

After a traumatic incident, the two women find themselves on the run, breaking into a disused inn which they end up operating in a temporary illusion of domesticity. Rei practices her Mandarin, looking to Aoi for guidance, but discovering that her worries are fairly universal. What if you can’t communicate your feelings she asks, but Aoi has no answer for her, and Rei can only lament that people start hurting each other when communication fails. Her Taiwanese heritage, however, becomes an unexpected, two-fold threat to her new familial connection when the pair visit a local Taiwanese temple which is also home to a Japanese researcher who speaks perfect Mandarin and has identified the two women as the fugitives from the news, but has also developed a quite obvious attraction to Aoi. 

Rei came here to face herself, but is consciously working towards a resolution, determined to make a connection while asserting her own agency. Aoi meanwhile worries she’s doing the opposite, “playing house”, “running away”, “refusing to face reality”. The researcher tells her, perhaps not altogether altruistically, that she’s being irresponsible, and that her indulgence of Rei may in the long run be harmful. She too feels lost and alone, confessing that she found herself subject to unwanted male attention she couldn’t directly deflect and feigned an ignorance that put her at odds with other women who came to resent her for it. Preoccupied, she too fails to understand Rei’s feelings, trying to be kind but nevertheless causing pain along the way. 

Through visiting the temple and reconnecting with her Taiwanese heritage, Rei finds the words she needs in order to communicate what it is she really feels and hopes that, finally, someone is going to listen. Contending with miscommunication, prejudice, ignorance, and a fundamental “language barrier” in the difficulty of translating feelings accurately and being fully understood, Rei does her best to become her most authentic self, integrating her identity and defiantly embracing it but doing so with openness as she strives for communication as a weapon against hate and violence.


My Identity streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Tale of Iya (祖谷物語 -おくのひと-, Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)

1Japanese cinema has certainly been no stranger to the discussion of environmental issues from Studio Ghibli’s concerns about the modern society’s encroachment into the natural world to the ultra modern concerns about pollution and the dangers of nuclear disasters. However, they’ve rarely been addressed to poetically as in The Tale of Iya which is an extraordinarily rich examination of man and the landscape. Tinged with magical realism and surreal juxtapositions, The Tale of Iya is an oddly wonderful experience in the broadest sense of the word.

Film begins with a vast expanse of deep snow in which a lone figure dressed in traditional blue mountain dress with a conical straw hat is making an everyday journey to a local shrine. This could be a scene from any Jidaigeki or even a woodblock print were it not for the crashed car the old man finds a little further into his journey. A woman has been thrown through the windscreen and is lying motionless the bonnet. The old man gives the incongruous scene a quizzical look, but moves on along his planned path. Then, however, even more strangely he finds a little pink bundle by the side of a frozen river. This time he does stop and scoop the infant up. A jump cut sees us flash forward to around fifteen years later as teenage girl dressed in pink gets up to make breakfast for her ‘grandfather’  – the old man of the mountains. On her way to the local school she passes an old lady who’s taken to making sack mannequins which seem to do their part to make up the population of this rapidly declining mountain village.

The newly born sack people aren’t the only newcomers though – in an attempt at modernisation, the town planning committee have elected to build a tunnel which will connect them to the main road and make transportation easier. However, this has met with strong opposition from ‘environmental groups’ represented by an American eco-warrior. Amongst these strangers is another from Tokyo who seems to have come for an unknown reason but eventually decides to stay and attempt to farm the land. Iya is certainly very beautiful, but country life is also hard and entirely dependent on the weather. The young people long to leave for the comparative excitement of the city. City people though long for the simplicity of a long forgotten country life.

The film begins in a more or less naturalistic style filled with the most beautiful cinematography of snow covered vistas and foggy mountains. However, a strong seam of surreality constantly builds throughout the film until it reaches the final third and almost becomes a sort of science-fiction film about a magical environmental product that can clean polluted rivers down to near perfect clarity. Folklore beliefs and practices run side by side with a more poetic slice of magical realism that is jarring at first (and actually a tiny bit frightening) but the film’s surreal and dreamlike imagery is likely to be the thing that lingers longest.

A Tale of Iya also manages to offer a broadly nuanced and balanced view of the nature of country life and concerns about the environment. This is a remote town with a dwindling population – the new tunnel will ease communication, ultimately make lives safer and perhaps stop so many young people leaving the area altogether. The local people are therefore very much in favour of the new tunnel and many of them actually work for the construction company who are building it. The only opposition to the bridge is from a group of foreigners who are living in a commune but come down from the mountain every day to shout ‘save Iya’ and various ‘shame on you’ type comments (in English) at the construction team. The irony being that their ‘commune’ run in a typical communal farming style with hundreds of ‘save Iya’ billboards might actually be the biggest eye-sore in the area.

That’s not to say the film isn’t in favour of conservation or that it feels all construction is beneficial (quite the reverse) but it is eager to present a fair comment on both sides of the problem. Similarly, it isn’t afraid to point out that this ancient way of life is extremely difficult. Kudo, who’s arrived from Tokyo and looks so jumpy all the time one wonders if he left in a hurry, is eager to learn about traditional farming. He looks so pleased with himself when he’s finally mastered how to water crops in the traditional way, not to mention that torturous looking two buckets on a stick water carrying device. It’s not long before he’s taken up the self sufficient life but the problem with that is you have to do everything yourself – no electric, no running water (other than that which runs in a stream), no sanitation and in short no safety net. Muddling through and celebrating small victories is fine in the blistering heat of summer but as the first snow falls and you don’t have enough winter stores, death from cold or starvation (or both) is a very real possibility. City people romanticise country life thinking it’s ‘easier’ or admiring its ‘simplicity’ but whatever it gives it also takes.

At 169 minutes, there’s no point in denying A Tale of Iya is an extremely long film that moves a stately pace. Undeniably some viewers will be put off by its epic running time and frequent flights of fancy but those who stay the distance will be richly rewarded. Magical, beautiful and finally profoundly moving, A Tale of Iya is an incredibly heady brew that stays in the mind long after it finishes. Truly ‘wonderful’ in every sense of the word, A Tale of Iya deserves to be much more widely seen.


First published by UK Anime Network.