The adjective that most readily comes to mind with respect to Jimbo Yoshimasa's I'm Ten, Then I'll Catch Eleven (Japanese: Boku wa môsugu jûissai ni naru) is "gentle". It is a story about delicate thoughts and emotions, presented in the most delicate way. Which is not to say that it is ephemeral. Yoshimasa's film operates within a mode of marvelously tactile social realism, wherein his camera often assumes the vantage point of ten-year-old protagonist Shogo. In this, the film recalls the work of Korean-American director So-yong Kim, and in particular her poignant tale of childhood disillusionment, Treeless Mountain. Where Kim's features contain an relentless ache of loneliness, however, Yoshimasa's is defined to a significant extent by its warm, sweet tone. Indeed, I'm Ten is practically a conflict-free film, a trait that brings to mind the animated works of Hayao Miyazaki. There are strains and anxieties fluttering through the film's events, which take place over a winter break in Japan, but they are of a profoundly subtle nature. The pleasure of the film lies in watching as Yoshimasa and his performers expertly tease out the story's emotional contours from a relatively sparing screenplay.
Inasmuch as I'm Ten has a plot, it concerns Shogo's wrestling with the Big Questions of morality, life, and death. This plays out through two connected storylines. The first focuses on Shogo's hobby of collecting and mounting insects, a passion passed on to him by his father, who works overseas for long stretches. Just as Shogo is beginning to share this pastime with his eager classmate Kanon, his father returns from the Indian subcontinent with a new outlook on life. He espouses a reverence for all living things, and resolves to give up collecting, lest he pin a beetle that was a human in a past life. This development coincides with a family visit to Shogo's grandfather, whose is so devoted to his deceased wife's spirit that his actions teeter between piety and eccentricity. (His daily routine includes providing her ashes with constant verbal updates on family activities.) These myriad events leave Shogo wondering about the mystery of mortality, and specifically about what constitutes conscientious behavior towards the dead (and the freshly reincarnated).
Despite its subject matter, I'm Ten is not an angst-wracked, funereal sort of film. Shogo is at an age where his response to death is one of modest confusion and curiosity rather than despair. He is concerned foremost with questions about the intersection of the tangible and intangible. Is his grandmother still "there" in the jar of white ash? Is the reincarnated person still "there" in the butterfly that he freezes and mounts? As one might expect in a child, Shogo's response to disorientation is often imitation. When his father becomes vegan, he too quickly and adamantly renounces animal protein. He carefully observes his grandfather's ritualized actions at the household shrine, and later attempts to replicate them. Shogo's mimicry is consistent with the film's ethos, which ultimately favors a fumbling, open-minded approach to life and death, until one finds a set of behaviors that feel respectful and meaningful. It's an outlook that frowns on bullying and smiles on accommodation. No characters in I'm Ten attempt to convert others to their way of thinking, and the tension that arises from differences in belief are of a soft sort that intertwine with other social dynamics. (The mild but very real friction between Shogo's parents over the father's newfound beliefs is conveyed through some masterfully understated acting.) It's a quiet, lovely little film, one that conveys a child's complex and elusive feelings with marvelous nuance.