Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit is a charming, if disappointingly conservative, family drama about a girl who finds herself being raised by a transgender woman.
Between Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman, God’s Own Country, and Close-Knit, the 2017 Berlinale set a high-standard for LGBTQ representation at film festivals. Providing new, underseen perspectives in a selection that was, for the most part, riddled with familiar stories and cliches, these films each proved to be highlights in their respective strands. Japanese drama Close-Knit takes a decidedly non-confrontational approach to transphobia, at times threatening to fall into misplaced sentimentality. Although it would have been more progressive for the film not to attenuate the difference of its transgender character, this charming film nevertheless rises above usual mediocre festival fare.Japanese drama Close-Knit takes a decidedly non-confrontational approach to transphobia.Click To Tweet
All but abandoned by her neglectful mother, 11-year-old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) temporarily moves in with her uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani), who lives with his transgender girlfriend, Rinko (Toma Ikuta). As Tomo gets to know Rinko, Tomo’s fear of this transgender stranger soon fades away, and the three become a sort of nuclear family unit — a real novelty for Tomo, who was used to being left to her own devices. Rinko looks after Tomo as her mother never did, keeping a watchful eye on the young girl as she does her homework and allowing her to play video games when she is finished. On weekends, the unconventional family goes for scenic picnics and bike rides together.
Rinko’s adoption of the conventional role of perfect, domestic housewife is certainly a deliberate attempt by filmmaker Naoko Ogigami to make this character as familiar as possible to a (cisgender, heterosexual) mainstream audience. When Rinko is not working as an admirably patient care-nurse, she wears cute, mumsy twin sets and an almost permanent warm smile. She cooks delicious meals every single day and keeps the house tidy.
Ogigami has said that she decided to make this film after she returned to Japan and was shocked by the invisibility of the LGBTQ people she would see everyday when she lived in the US. It’s of course a shame that Rinko is played by cisgender male actor Toma Ikuta in drag. Yet the film still represents a milestone for a national cinema that still very rarely acknowledges transgender people at all, let alone in a positive light. Ikuta’s star power might at least attract audiences to engage — perhaps for the first time — with transgender issues.CLOSE-KNIT represents a milestone for a national cinema that still very rarely acknowledges transgender people at all.Click To Tweet
The conventional and non-confrontational aspect of this domestic lifestyle is also counterbalanced by the film’s progressive attitude towards sexuality. More than the cute bento boxes that Rinko prepares for Tomo, what brings the two closer is Rinko’s openness about her body. Several scenes show her letting Tomo touch her fake breasts and talking openly about her genitalia. The title of the film refers to the 109 colourful, symbolic woolly penises that Rinko knits throughout the film and which she later burns in a ritual to forever let go of her male identity. Both Tomo and Makio joyously help with the knitting. Although all actual genitalia remain off-screen, a sequence where the group openly jokes about the size of Makio’s own member — “I’m sure yours isn’t as big as this one!” Tomo and Rinko say while brandishing an oversized woolly penis — is disarmingly glorious and risqué.
Rinko takes on the role of domestic housewife in a conventional nuclear family but without the taboo surrounding sexuality that is often inherent to it: most children do not feel comfortable talking about sex with their parents. Just like Marina in A Fantastic Woman adopts a conventional heterosexual lifestyle while casting out the transphobic attitude that often comes with it, Rinko in Close-Knit carefully designs her own domestic life to be stripped of the stigma around sexuality. She creates an environment where people — especially Tomo — can feel comfortable talking about gender, sexuality and identity.
Tomo’s focus on Rinko’s body is not born out of a gross reduction of gender dysphoria to a simple desire to change one’s body, ignoring its profound implications on the psyche and on notions of identity. Rather, it is testament both to Tomo’s childishness — kids are often curious about bodies — and to her genuine respect for Rinko. When Rinko explains that she simply knew that she wanted to be a girl, Tomo never questions her desire or her motives for transitioning. Rather, she respectfully, naturally believes Rinko, and listens.
The same can’t be said of every character in Close-Knit: outsiders soon try to break apart this utopian family unit. The first sign of hostility comes from the mother of Kai, Tomo’s schoolmate, who asks her son to stay away from Tomo upon learning that she is being looked after by a transgender woman. While Kai has to hide his homosexuality from his homophobic and transphobic mother, flashback sequences show Rinko’s mother help her son after he declares that he feels like a girl trapped in a male body. Rather than questioning him at all, she knits him wooly breasts to wear in a bra — a beautiful moment inspired by a real story the director read in a newspaper. This turn of events is doubly touching because it is also rare. Where so many films show the worst that can happen to LGBTQ people, Close-Knit delights in presenting a transgender experience as it should be: peaceful, happy, and relaxed.Close-Knit delights in presenting a transgender experience as it should be: peaceful, happy, and relaxed.Click To Tweet
It thus seems rather strange, even sadistic, for the film to force a tragically sad ending after such inspiring and hopeful moments. The negative attitude of Kai’s mother is soon echoed by Tomo’s mother, who returns at the end of the film demanding that her daughter come back with her to their miserable, dirty apartment. In a horrifying scene, the woman implies that being Tomo’s biological mother, a woman able to conceive children, she can inherently take better care of her than Rinko ever could. The film shares Rinko’s, Tomo, and Makio’s (and hopefully, the viewers’) shock at such a remark, yet ends on a sour note: Rinko’s dream of becoming Tomo’s mother is shattered.Close-Knit leaves a lasting impression of what joy there could be if society were more tolerant.Click To Tweet
To the film’s credit, its scenes of idyllic peace are never tinged with a melancholy sense that they could never last, like such happy moments so often are in films about LGBTQ characters (think Boys Don’t Cry). The sad ending of Close-Knit is genuinely surprising, which makes these glimpses at the happy life of a transgender character all the more powerful. Perhaps designed to provoke a still largely transphobic society, Close-Knit leaves a lasting impression not simply of the injustice faced by transgender people, but also of what joy there could be if society were more tolerant.