Hanada Kanako: Maeda Atsuko
Oshima Satuski, Juri’s mother: Ishihara Mariko
Tamura Hiroyuki, instructor of the literature club: Takaoka Sosuke
Kanai Jun, Kanako’s friend: Sakurada Dori
Sugitani Tadashi, Juri’s father: Ishihara Yoshizumi
Setting: Present-day Kanagawa and Yamanashi Prefecture.
Juri, an elementary school girl living in the suburbs, passes her days trying to avoid becoming the target of bullying, or the popular class leader?days imbued with a vague fear of “tomorrow.” At home her parents are always quarreling, and the impending entrance exam for private junior high school doesn’t make the situation any better. Her family does their best to act like the perfect family for the entrance exam interview, but nonetheless Juri fails the exam. Her elder brother, not very talkative, seems to be the only one in the family who sees the situation with composure and understanding. During her absence from school for the exam, Kanako, formerly the popular class leader, becomes the target of bullying, and Manami, the former target, passes the exam Juri failed.
On graduation day, Juri finds herself alone with Kanako in the library. Kanako says she is there to escape the theatricality of the graduation ceremony, and that she is really the popular class leader she once was, and has played the part of the bullying target only because someone has to. Juri tells her that she took the entrance exam only to please her parents. They agree that they are both playing unlucky parts. Kanako quotes Dazai Osamu: “You are good at lying, so at least behave yourself,” adding that it hurts all the same.
In junior high school, Kanako continues to be bullied, and Juri finds herself getting better at playing different roles. She can’t face up to the anxiety that would arise if she stopped playing along with everyone. Nor does she have the guts to stop acting like a good girl for her parents. And there isn’t anything else she’d rather be doing. She can’t find the courage to talk to Kanako. Her parents get a divorce, and Juri starts living with her mother in an apartment.
In high school, she hears that Kanako moved to Yamanashi. Juri manages to get Kanako’s email address. Wearied by a writing assignment for the literature club (where the instructor tells her that fiction is nothing but a pathetic lie), and the need to act like a good daughter for both parents?to “behave herself”?Juri decides to send an email to Kanako’s cell phone, anonymously. To Kanako, who doesn’t seem to remember the conversation in the library, Juri serves as an anonymous advisor. Juri tells the story of Kotori and a friend of hers, Hina. Kanako, who was suspicious of the anonymous messages at first, begins to act just like Hina does in Juri’s story, and turns into a popular girl at her new school. Juri shows her story to the literature club instructor, and gets positive feedback. Suddenly she has found something to live for?in lying, in playing an imagined part perfectly.
A boy, Jun, asks Kanako out. With Juri’s help, she succeeds in turning him into her boyfriend. When Juri’s mother introduces her new boyfriend to Juri, Juri realizes she might not be needed anymore. Juri’s story nears the end, the time for Juri to return from a fictitious character to her true self. It comes not quite as Juri expected. Kanako tries to break up with Jun, because she has simply been playing a character prescribed by someone else. She sees no difference between playing a bullying target and playing Hina. Juri loses confidence in the power of “lying.” But Kanako’s relationship is salvaged when Jun tells her that he doesn’t give a damn about her “fake” or “true” self; that he just likes Harada Kanako as she is. Reaffirmed, Kanako, who has known the true identity of the sender of the story all along, looks up Juri’s cell phone number and calls her. They talk to each other for the first time in years, face to face with the video turned on. Touched by the fact that Kanako has come forward, Juri opens up as well. She tells Kanako in tears that she blames her family’s breakup on her failure to pass the junior high entrance exam; that she is afraid of being “different” at school; that she has no true friends. Kanako tells her how similar they are, always acting, afraid of getting hurt, refusing to accept themselves as they are. But she has come to a realization, she tells her, that she is who she is, including all the negative parts. And she owes this positive thinking of hers to Juri. After her phone call with Kanako, Juri decides to live true to herself, and invites both parents to a dance performance at school, where she is going to make a speech. Now she can speak for herself, as herself, and accept others as they are.
How to Become Myself (the original title means “How to Make Myself for Tomorrow”) is Ichikawa Jun’s 20th feature film, and second to last. Ichikawa was in his late fifties when he depicted this sensitive and insightful story about two young girls from elementary school through high school. This film is unique in that it deals with the problem of how to fit in almost exclusively on a psychological or ethical level. There are none of the violent occurrences we are used to seeing in western films dealing with similar issues. There is no class or race (there is not even a “popular crowd”?there is only the ruthless “majority”). The act of bullying itself is sparingly depicted as well. And there are no “bad guys”?take, for example, Juri’s brother, Kanako’s boyfriend, and the instructor of the literature club?as if to reduce the issue to a chemically pure state, where being bullied is a matter that can be dealt with through personal resolve. In a society as homogeneous and ostensibly classless as Japan’s, it may well have been a valid tactic. At least few Japanese films have taken on the theme of bullying (hardly a day passes without the word ijime?bullying in Japanese?making headlines) in the ethically austere context of “fitting in” and “deceitfulness” like this film did.
Dazai Osamu (1909 ? 1948) is a popular writer, whose decadent and self-destructive style has a large following to this day. “Clowning” was one of his recurring motifs.
Narumi Riko (Juri), who was only 14 years old when this film was released, is now one of Japan’s most promising young actresses. Maeda Atsuko (Kanako) is a central member of the “idol” group AKB48.