It is tough enough being a kid, but the family twelve-year-old-ish Tomo keeps supplying fresh complications. Even though she is used to it, Tomo is still confused and resentful when her unstable mother abandons her yet again. Initially, she also has a hard time getting her head around her uncle’s transgender girlfriend, but when the unconventional couple takes her in, she starts to respond to the secure and loving home they provide in Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japanese Film Festival of San Francisco.
Tomo’s mother has done this before, but never for this long. Makio tries not to judge her too harshly, because he knows how hard their mother treated her when they were growing up. Before, it was harder for him to put-up Tomo in his Spartan bachelor pad, but his flat is now quite homey thanks to his live-in girlfriend Rinko. Sensing the young girl’s bewilderment, Rinko explains she was born male, but is in the late stage of transitioning, saving the more specific detail for later.
Having witnessed the bullying of Kai, a closeted classmate, Tomo is rather standoffish at first. However, Rinko’s warmth and smiley face bentos quickly win her over. Soon she is even teaching Tomo how to use knitting as an anger management tool (and thereby establishing the dual meaning of the title). Tomo’s relationship with Rinko also helps her relate to Kai with greater compassionate. Unfortunately, Kai’s shrewish mother Naomi remains rigidly repressive.
In case we missed the point, Ogigami contrasts the judgmental environment Naomi creates, with flashbacks to Rinko’s years as a boy in middle school, when she received from amazing support and understanding from her tough but cool mother Fumiko. Frankly, the entire Kai subplot could certainly be accused of driving its points into the ground and halfway to Timbuktu. However, Ogigami and the first readers of her script probably felt it was necessary, so Rinko’s relationship with her mother would not be dismissed as uncharacteristically and unrealistically positive and accepting. Unfortunately, that makes poor little Kai the film’s whipping boy.
Regardless of the LGBT themes, young Rinka Kakihara gives a remarkably accomplished performance as Tomo. She sure-footedly covers a wide emotional gambit. When we watch her, we are keenly aware Close-Knit is more than a social issue drama and Tomo has more going on in her life than campaigning for transgender rights. She also has an enormously problematic relationship with her mother, whose absence is still very painful.
Obviously, a lot of attention will understandably focus on Toma Ikuta’s portrayal of Rinko. He is very good as her, completely eschewing all cheap clichés and contrived flamboyances. As he plays Rinko, she is just a woman working to find her place in the world, who thinks she may have found a focal point for her motherly instincts in Tomo. Misako Tanaka is wonderfully tart-tongued as Fumiko, but Kenta Kiritani is likely to be unfairly looked for his appealingly humane and understated work as Uncle Makio.
So, we were saying something about the Japanese film industry’s aptitude for domestic dramas. As it happens, Close-Knit is considered a bit of a departure from Ogigami’s previous female empowerment comedies, like the low-key but charming Rent-a-Cat, but it is dramatically and stylistically quite compatible with films like Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse and Kore-eda’s After the Storm. Of course, the sexual orientation themes are not accidental, which would make Close-Knit a heck of a shrewd choice for Japan to submit for best foreign language Oscar consideration. (As far as we can tell, it easily fulfills the language and release date requirements, but you never know what the Academy quibble over.) Regardless, it is a very nice film about a little girl, her uncle, and perhaps her future aunt doing their best in a messy world. Recommended for those who would appreciate either as a family story or a quiet transgender message movie, Close-Knit screens this Friday (9/8), as part of this year’s JFFSF.