LFF 2017: Close-Knit Review
It’s not every day that you get to say a movie has the best use of a cuddly penis fight in cinema, but here we are.
LGBT culture in Japan is a difficult topic. Same sex marriage is still not yet legal, and when LGBT subjects are approached in media, they tend to be highly fetishised or comical. This is changing slowly with certain cities and prefectures beginning to recognise same-sex partnerships, and manga such as Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son (about two young friends exploring their gender identity) and Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband (about a single father who meets his dead estranged brother’s Canadian husband for the first time) made with a more straightforward and open-minded approach. Writer and director Naoko Ogigami spent six years in America and upon returning to Japan began to notice the particular differences in day to day attitudes towards LGBT people. This was the catalyst for her latest film; the tender family drama Close-Knit.
Tomo (Rin Kakihara) is an eleven year old girl who lives with her mother Hiromi (Mimura), who is very rarely at home. When Hiromi seems to have taken off for good, Tomo goes to stay with her uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani), who has a new girlfriend; transgender care-worker Rinko (Tôma Ikuta). Initially surprised, Tomo comes to care for Rinko and enjoys the loving home life that she has been denied. One of the ways that the family comes together is through Rinko’s slightly unusual knitting project.
Naoko Ogigami’s films are often called “iyashi-kei eiga”, which means “films which provide emotional healing”. They are designed to give you that warm, sweet, and comforting feeling, and leave a warm glow afterwards. It’s a sweetness and light humour with strong character growth that is reminiscent of Hirokazu Koreeda at his best, particularly 2015’s Our Little Sister. Both films share a plot of a strong family bond that many would consider unconventional, and also puts a lot of significance on food; like Our Little Sister, Close-Knit places a certain significance on scenes of family bonding over meals, but here there is also the added element of Tomo’s state in life being reflected by the food she eats, with convenience store onigiri, rice balls, being representative of her life with her neglectful mother.
It is a movie that relishes in the good things, and that is embodied in the character of Rinko. She is caring and warm, and her relationship with Makio is beautifully uncomplicated; he fell in love with her and that’s that. We also get to see Rinko’s younger life with her accepting mother. Her project that Tomo gets involved with is to knit 108 penises (based on an element from Buddhist teachings) and then burn them in a kind of memorial service for her life as a man. It’s something that is sweet and funny, but belies a deep emotional significance for the character.
Rinko is played by male actor Tôma Ikuta. Casting like this is something that has gained a lot of scrutiny over the last few years, with people feeling that by having men portray transgender women, such as Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, it is insulting and is tantamount to saying that transgender women are simply men playing dress up. It also considered insulting when it actively takes work away from transgender actors and actresses. Ogigami has addressed this in interviews, saying that whilst there are transgender performers in Japan, they are mostly comedians and portray very over the top and caricatured versions of transgender people, and she wanted Rinko to be a more natural and down to earth presence. There is also the factor that if the movie had starred a transgender actress it wouldn’t have been as widely accepted in Japan as it has been. Should a transgender actress have been cast over a man? Absolutely, but it is important to keep the wider context of the country this movie is coming from in mind, and also this does not mean that the movie does not have charm or good points.
The movie does also address the intolerance that LGBT people can face. Tomo experiences teasing and ignorance when her living situation becomes known to her school friends, and Rinko says that it is something she is familiar with but that she tries to channel her anger from such encounters into her knitting. There is also the subplot dealing with Tomo’s classmate and friend Kai; a quiet boy who is starting to come to terms with his sexuality, and has a mother who is significantly less tolerant and understanding than Tomo’s family is. He is bullied by others in school, and at first Tomo avoids any contact with him in school before realising the error in her own prejudice. Young Kaito Komie does a wonderful and heart-breaking job showing the boy’s unhappiness which escalates to a dire situation. The problem is that after this moment of real, horrific, drama, we get no real resolution to the matter and the entire subplot is forgotten as we move into the third act. It leaves things in very broad strokes and is a little disappointing. The ending itself is also not as satisfying as you either want it to be or what feels like everything previously should have been building to.
There are people out there who can examine and critique the full issues of LGBT themes better than I can, I would never claim nor presume otherwise, but I feel that Close-Knit, despite not being the best in terms of representation, is a small step in the right direction for mainstream LGBT social acceptance in Japan and is a great little film with tremendous heart and personality.
PS. If another film featuring a better cuddly penis fight is ever released, I will retract my opening statement.