It has been five years since Naoko Ogigami’s last film, but her latest continues the thematic strand of challenging normative notions of belonging and finding/forging a space of one’s own — on one’s terms — in the midst of the bustle/hustle of everyday city life. Such a strand is found in her strongest films: Rent-a-Cat (2012), about a woman whose livelihood is renting out cats to people who desire companionship and who confronts her own desires and reality in the process; Glasses (2007), which follows a woman from the city to an island inn and finds a new rhythm with which to live life; and Kamome Diner (2006), the first Japanese film to be shot in Finland, as it concerns a Japanese woman who opens up a diner in Helsinki and through it creates friendships and community. Close-Knit also concerns women, particularly single mothers, and their struggles with working, raising their children, and fulfilling individual desires and dreams.
But while Ogigami’s previous films are told from the point of view of their lead female characters, Close-Knit has a single mother’s child, Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), be the female character as the film’s principal perspective. And while the stories of the above-mentioned films deal with the lead female characters in search of and/or forging new spaces of belonging themselves, Ogigami charts not Tomo’s individual journey but rather the maternal relationship that develops between her and her uncle Makio’s (Kenta Kiritani) live-in girlfriend Rinko (Toma Ikuta), who is a transgender woman. Written by Ogigami in response to the realisation of the lack of representation/visibility of the trans community in Japan, Close-Knit is a highly commendable work, particularly in its rejection of uplift in favour of complex everyday realities, difficulties and joys alike. Despite certain thorny details that make it slightly problematic — or ingeniously perceptive, depending on one’s take on them — it is also a highly significant film; even ground-breaking, given its casting coup of popular actor Ikuta as Rinko.
The film’s key problematic detail, but from which stems the narrative pivot of Tomo meeting Rinko and moving in with her and her uncle Makio, is established in the beginning with the portrait of Tomo as a latchkey child due to her mother Hiromi’s (Mimura) neglect. Hiromi has run off (again) with her current boyfriend, leaving Tomo to her own devices. Luckily, her uncle Makio lives nearby and she finds herself spending more and more time at his place; in the process, she grows close to Rinko, who gives her the emotional attention and order that is missing in her life. Together, the three characters come to be a makeshift family in the absence of Hiromi. But life in Ogigami’s films is never unrealistically bright — she usually foregoes neat or happy endings — and her characters experience sad, sometimes unpalatable truths, however briefly, as much as they do elated ones. Here, it is prejudice against Rinko from the greater community, with Tomo’s classmate’s mother standing for the public at large. The irony is, of course, that she and Makio are able to provide a more (emotionally) stable and outwardly loving life than Hiromi.
Yet herein lies an interesting characteristic in the film, to return to the ‘key problematic detail.’ The film is populated with single mothers — Hiromi; Naomi (Eiko Koike), a neighbour and the mother of Kai (Kaito Komie), Tomo’s classmate; Hiromi and Makio’s mother (Lily), who resides in the senior residential care home where Rinko works as a caregiver; and Yuka (Mugi Kadowaki), Rinko’s mother, against whom Rinko’s maternal abilities are implicitly measured. Ultimately, on very close inspection, the film further implicitly addresses single motherhood negatively in relation to the positive, empathetic characterisation of Rinko’s maternal qualities (and representing a two-parent household), deemed better all the more due to the troubled (or even failed) motherhood of Hiromi, Naomi, Hiromi and Makio’s mother, and Yuka. Either Ogigami was conscious of such a negative-positive equation, in order to address the still prevalent stigmatisation of single mothers in Japan (a great number of whom live below the poverty line, pressured as they are between needing to work and fulfilling the expected stay-at-home mother image who dotes on her child’s every waking/sleeping moment), in the process of giving a very compassionate representation of the trans community; or such an equation was not intended, in which case, the film can unfortunately be read as unwittingly sacrificing representation of one marginalised group for another.
Barring the latter reading, and even outweighing it in the final analysis, the film’s primary strength lies in the ensemble cast’s performances: understated, organic, and unpretentious, as in all of Ogigami’s work. Part of the quality of such performances is due to Ogigami letting scenes play out in semi-long takes instead of using shot/reverse-shot, which allows the spectator to imbibe not only the emotional bonds between Tomo, Rinko, and Makio but also the spatial and gestural aspects of home-as-what-you-make-of-something, inside and outside the house and in the face of Naomi’s hurtful words and acts towards Rinko and school bullying for Tomo. (It is in this context that the film’s literal Japanese title, ‘When they knit seriously,’ comes into play.) Clearly Ogigami is not addressing the experiences of a transgender woman for the simple sake of drama or attention. The sincerity is palpable.
For apart from Rinko is one of Tomo’s classmates, Kai, who shares with Tomo at one point his crush on a male student in their school — and thus making his mother Naomi’s words and acts all the more wounding. Between Kai and Rinko, then, Tomo is getting an education outside of the classroom — about belonging, understanding, and diverse forms of family — that she is not getting at school. And such an education is implied to encompass the spectator, especially when Tomo meets Yuka and the film itself provides flashbacks of Yuka’s experiences with Rinko as a teenager and her own understanding of and support for her son’s identification of himself as female.
Understanding and support are not givens in life, and so it goes in Ogigami’s films, including Close-Knit. But from the point of view of Tomo, through whom the film asks us to identify the most, what begins as an insular world becomes an expansive, interconnected one through her knowing Rinko, Makio, and Kai.
Close-Knit is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 8 at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:00pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.