Theme Tuesday - Close-Knit
For January, I will be exploring the works of Japanese female directors as part of my 2018 resolution to watch more films by female directors (more than fifty percent of films watched to be precise).
Close-Knit is in the tradition of gentle Japanese cinema, which finds its roots in Ozu and finds its modern master in Hirokazu Koreeda. A young girl, Tomo, finds herself abandoned yet again by her irresponsible mother and has to go live with her uncle. To her surprise, he is now in a relationship with a transgender woman named Rinko.
The film moves along at a leisurely pace. This seems intentional on director Naoko Ogigami’s part (who also wrote the screenplay) since this piece could have easily been some conventional, heightened melodrama about the great discrimination that queer and transgender people face. Instead, she seems to be more content in capturing a particular period of time in a girl’s life in which gay and transgender characters happen to feature importantly in her narrative. This gives Ogigami time to explore many small moments such as Tomo’s admiration for the cute bento boxes that Rinko packs for her. More importantly, it also gives more time to Rinko and her narrative and how she came to realize her gender identity.
Most of the film follows Tomo and her adjusting to her new life, which has a lot more attention and care than she is used to. One of the best things about this film is Rinka Kakihara’s performance as Tomo. She is realistically unsentimental yet vulnerable at the same time in that way that all children can be. She isn’t perfect either. Even though she comes to accept Rinko for who she is, she cannot initially extend that same sympathy to one of her classmates who has admitted to her that he is gay.
Perhaps where the film might flounder a little is in the portrayal of Rinko. Toma Ikuta plays Rinko as incredibly feminine and the picture of domesticity and that might be a problem. Many films that feature minorities and were the first of their kind (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) tend to fall into the trap of making the minority exceptional, often because of a fear that mainstream audiences will not accept that minority if he or she is flawed. For example, Sidney Poitier often wrestled with this role of the exceptional black man that he found himself in.
I found to be the case in the portrayal of Rinko in this film, which is still a lovely and humane performance. Toma Ikuta plays her so well that we don’t feel like we are seeing a man in drag. I do not know the exact attitude towards queerness in Japanese society, but there have been examples of complex, fascinating depictions of gay and trans people in Japanese cinema. A film I watched recently, Funeral Parade of Roses, was a fascinating take on the Oedipus tale that featured a gay community. The characters in that film were flawed and compelling. Also, Peter, who plays the protagonist in that film, has been a famously gay celebrity in Japan for the longest time. If the film had been a little bolder in telling a different kind of story about queerness, then I think it could have made a more lasting impression and have been publicized more broadly in the international film market. Still, Close-Knit is a lovely and gentle film that will leave you in a refreshed, contemplative state after you have seen it.