There’s a belief among Western fans that Japanese media is less political than American comics and cartoons. That belief isn’t necessarily true, however, as a lot of Japanese media offers commentary on contemporary Japanese society and the world as a whole — it just does so in a less heavy-handed manner.
Love Me for Who I Am by Kata Konayama is certainly a book I would call political, even though you won’t find any US presidents turned into M.O.D.O.K. here. What you will find is a cast of characters who are not exactly embraced by parts of society because of their various gender identities and sexualities, presented in a positive and empathetic way.
The story begins with Tetsu Iwaoka finding a Tanabata wish his classmate Mogumo made, asking for friends who will understand them. Tetsu brings Mogumo to his brother’s maid cafe where the hostesses are all men dressed as women, because he assumed that Mogumo, who he knew to be male but dressed like a girl, would fit in. But Mogumo has objections because they’re actually non-binary and don’t consider themself to be either male or female.
The other maids at Question, the boys-dressed-as-girls cafe owned by Tetsu’s brother, all have their own gender identities and sexualities; Mei realizes that she’s trans after fighting with Mogumo on how the maids should introduce themselves, Suzu is a boy who dresses like a girl to go out with his boyfriend, and Ten just likes to cosplay.
Mogumo’s wish — to have friends who understand them — is pretty central to the story. People have to work to understand each other. If I’m honest with you, I don’t entirely understand these characters and their motivations. Not only is their a cultural difference, but I really only have my own life experience and some things are hard to wrap my head around, especially the idea of someone who doesn’t see themselves as a boy or a girl.
What Love Me For Who I Am does for the audience is say that it’s okay if you don’t really get it — the characters themselves don’t really get it either. Most of them manage to say the wrong thing to each other at some point. But they make an effort to understand each other and not invalidate each other’s identities. It says to an audience that has their own biases and experiences that it’s okay if it takes you some time to understand as long as you try to understand.
Of course, Love Me For Who I Am is a story, not some Randian-style monologue, so while the exploration of the issues around gender identity is important to the story and a strong theme of the book, it’s not the story. The story is the relationship between Tetsu and Mogumo.
An interesting historical note is that Love Me For Who I Am is a reworking of an adult comic Konayama-sensei had previously created called Kimi Dake no Ponytail. Even though the characters and situation have changed, it almost feels like Konayama-sensei didn’t want to retread the falling in love parts from that book, and so Tetsu and Mogumo seem to just fall into a relationship without much fanfare or any sort of confession scene.
While this isn’t a shojo manga, it’s pretty common for shojo manga to get couples together early on and for the book to focus on their relationship ups and downs, so this doesn’t feel unprecedented or anything, but I would have liked a little more build-up to the idea that they would be a couple and little more of the sweet romantic scenes that were such a big part of Kimi Dake no Ponytail.
The introduction of a romantic rival for Mogumo’s affection towards the end of the book brings in an element of structure the story is lacking early on, as the book spends a little too long introducing the characters in a section that drags a little bit.
Representation in media is important, but at the end of the day that representation doesn’t mean much if no one wants to read the stories that representation is in. Fortunately for Love Me For Who I Am, it has a compelling love story at the center and a cute and fluffy aesthetic that will keep fans of those things entertained.
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