Film / Reviews

‘Close-Knit’: The pride that breaks the prejudice

by Mark Schilling

Japan would seem to be a paradise for LGBT people. Transgender “talents” have been appearing regularly on Japanese TV for decades and LGBT folks can walk the streets here with little fear.

But dig below Japan’s surface tolerance for sexual minorities, as Naoko Ogigami does in her new film “Close-Knit,” and the reality is not so rosy.

Known for films such as her break-out hit “Kamome Diner” (“Kamome Shokudo,” 2006), about unconventional Japanese women looking for a fresh start, Ogigami has found her own career’s second act in “Close-Knit,” which premiered in the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival’s Panorama section, won the Teddy Special Jury Award and finished second in the voting for the Panorama Audience Award.

Scripted by Ogigami following her awakening to LGBT issues during a recent visit to the United States, this new film is more overtly serious than her previous, quirkily comic work. Though not a tear-jerker in the local “women’s picture” tradition, “Close-Knit” flirts with the sort of “social problem film” melodrama Ogigami once studiously avoided. And the story slices reality so thin that it borders on only-in-the-movies fantasy.

Close-Knit (Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki wa)
Rating
Run Time 127 mins
Language Japanese

Nonetheless the film’s trans heroine, Rinko (Toma Ikuta), is a fully rounded character, not a flamboyant caricature of the sort found so often in Japan’s media. And her dream of becoming a wife and mother, over legal and social opposition, is presented minus feel-good false optimism. If Ogigami’s previous films were a form of relaxation therapy for her mostly female fans, her latest is closer to tough-love intervention for Japan’s still LGBT-unfriendly society.

As the story begins, 11-year-old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is living with her negligent mom (single-named Mimura), who feeds her on convenience-store rice balls and vanishes for days at a time. Finally reaching her limit, the plucky girl finds refuge with her uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani), a nerdy, good-hearted guy who is her mom’s younger brother. But Makio now has a live-in girlfriend, Rinko, who Tomo immediately sizes up as different. And Rinko soon tells her why: “I was born a boy,” she says. “God made a mistake.”

As Tomo is processing this information, Rinko does all she can to make the girl feel at ease, such as preparing delicious bento (box lunches) and teaching her how to knit — Rinko’s preferred method of stress relief. And when the girl feels lonely, Rinko takes her in her arms — and begins to dream of becoming her new mom for real.

Meanwhile, Tomo’s classmate Kai, who is like a younger version of Rinko, presents her with a moral dilemma: He wants to be her friend, but she can’t be seen talking to him at school, where he is a pariah, or she will be tainted by association. But once she sees Rinko as a loving surrogate mother rather than a guy in a dress, she also starts to view Kai differently. Kai’s uptight mom, however, spies Rinko and Tomo together in a supermarket and offers to “rescue” Tomo from the “freak.”

The whole film rises or falls on Ikuta’s performance as Rinko — and he is superb. A versatile actor who recently appear as a goofy undercover-cop-cum-gangster in Takashi Miike’s “The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio” (“Mogura no Uta: Hong Kong Kyosokyoku”), Ikuta plays Rinko as a natural woman, if one whose gentle surface can be roiled by injuries and injustices, though she has long since learned to manage her anger. She is, in other words, as far from the stereotypical campy drag queen as can be imagined.

Does this make Rinko an unrealistic ideal, similar to the all-too-perfect black authority figures (cop, teacher, etc.) once played by Sidney Poitier?

Perhaps, but she is also one of the many Ogigami characters impossible to dislike. And even if you don’t buy the film’s version of LGBT life in today’s Japan, you will definitely want her to cook for you.

Prejudice is here demolished, one bento at a time.