In a flashback scene in Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit, a mother named Fumiko comes home to find her child Rintaro, who was assigned male at birth, crying because they wished they had breasts. After taking a moment to process, Fumiko responds, “Of course. After all, you are a girl.” She lovingly tells Rintaro that there is nothing wrong with her. In the next scene, Fumiko gives Rintaro a bra and two breast pads she knitted herself.
It’s these sensitive and compassionate and normalized moments that make Close-Knit a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie for Japan and internationally. Close-Knit, which screened as part of the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival, follows Tomo, a young girl whose neglectful single mother suddenly takes off, leaving her completely alone. Tomo ends up staying with her uncle Makio and his partner Rinko, a trans woman (formerly the aforementioned Rintaro). Although Tomo is initially wary, the three of them soon become a strong and caring family unit. The film gives a rare intimate and nuanced character portrait without falling into the melodramatic pitfalls that often find their way into trans stories.
“This is kind of the first non-independent LGBT film in Japan,” Naoko Ogigami, director of Close-Knit told me, partially through a translator. “Spreading awareness and letting people know about LGBT issues was a big goal for me.”
Part of what makes Close-Knit so refreshing is its straightforward and normalized exploration of the life of a woman who happens to be trans.
While Japan has elected two trans public officials, specifically protects sexual and gender minorities in its national bullying policy, and is planning to install gender neutral bathrooms in Tokyo in preparation for the Olympics, trans rights remain fraught and separated from trans representation in Japanese media. Technically, trans people (mostly trans women) have been more visible in Japanese pop culture than in American culture, but their appearance doesn’t necessarily signal full trans acceptance in day-to-day life.
There are a number of television entertainers who are gay, crossdressers, or transgender, but they are often cast as eccentric, hyper-feminine, and flamboyant. There is often little time devoted to LGBTQ issues in the programs they’re featured on, regular trans people still struggle to find their place in Japanese society, and the single-tone stereotypes only encourage audiences to conflate gay people with crossdressers with transgender people, no matter the specific person in front of them. Some shows like Kimpachi Sensei, Last Friends, and the anime Wandering Son, have more deeply explored transgender and/or gender non-conforming lives.
Japanese pop culture’s insistence that trans women stick to comedy that can undermine them made it difficult for Ogigami to find someone to portray Rinko, who is wonderfully played by cis male actor Toma Ikuta. “There are some transgender TV stars like comedians and people accept them, but I couldn’t find any transgender actors in Japan,” she explained. “It’s still very hard for them to come out, and I couldn’t find any transgender actor as good as [Ikuta],” she said. “That was very a big problem. But I think he did a good job.”
In Close-Knit, Tomo’s character is initially reluctant to embrace Rinko as a mother, but Rinko remains compassionate, matter-of-factly explains aspects of her transition from time to time to help Tomo understand, teaches her to knit as a way to control and express anger, and cooks her delicious meals. Over time, and with Ogigami’s unique blend of sweet humor, Tomo accepts Rinko as the mother she never had.
But Rinko’s story as a trans woman is just another aspect of Close-Knit’s broader exploration of what it means to be a woman. “One thing I really wanted to [explore] was the relationship between mother and daughter and mother and son,” Ogigami said. “I wanted to represent different kinds of mothers.” While Tomo’s own mother is selfish and apathetic, Rinko provides a maternal warmth that Tomo doesn’t realize she craves. The mother of Tomo’s friend Kai, who is reconciling with his own homosexuality, is fearful and judgmental, while Rinko’s mother Fumiko, is compassionate, but brash and protective of her daughter, hilariously threatening Tomo if she breaks Rinko’s heart.
This idea of motherhood is also cleverly explored through food. Tomo’s mother seems to only feed her rice balls from the convenience store, but Rinko prepares an array of appetizing dishes, taking the time to decorate Tomo’s lunch. Fumiko on the other hand would rather eat out.
“Japanese people care about food obsessively,” Ogigami explained. “We have to eat a good meal, and so I have to make at least two dishes every night as a Japanese mother. There’s a societal expectation for the mother to have at least two to three homemade dishes. [The rice ball] was a symbolic limitation that [Tomo’s mom] she didn’t give to Tomo, so Rink gives her that.”
It’s probably safe to assume that having a film with six distinct women characters that passes the Bechdel test and the Vito Russo test may have something to do with its female director.
“With Japanese male filmmakers, sometimes I watch their films and feel very uncomfortable because the woman’s part is so idealized,” Ogigami told me over the weekend. “But as a woman, I think I can describe the reality of the woman.”
Ogigami’s blend of humor, sweetness, and compassion, we are able to see an broad and very normalizing diversity of womanhood and motherhood that spans generations and inherently includes trans women.