by Jason Suzuki
The family drama has arguably become just as big a festival import for Japanese film as the more B-movie genre offerings. Kore-eda's offerings assuming the position as the contemporary epitome of the plot-type. Last year's haunting Harmonium was a brilliant and unsettling upheaval of the family drama but what has been missing is an external backbone to these films. The insular focus on a specific group is a kind of comfort food construction. No strong social interests are to be found in the Japanese drama, it's a more grounded form of escapism, a possible reason as to its international recognition. Naoko Ogigami's newest film, her first since 2012's Rent-a-Cat, very much wants to look at the landscape of acceptance but within the confines of the microcosm of Japan, possibly the world: a lone apartment and the makeshift family that forms inside with Close-Knit. Essentially, Japan has produced an incredibly gentle and nuanced trans-themed film. Keeping with Ogigami's avoidance of the heightened, the film is never the hammer that beats the viewer on the head about a society that hammers down the nail that sticks out.
Tomo lives alone with her single mother who regularly leaves the child to fend for herself for days if not weeks. She takes it all in stride though showing up at her uncle Makio's (Kenta Kiritani) place of work. He's not surprised, his sister's neglect something the two of them have come to accept. He takes Tomo back to his apartment, something which feels routine for the two. It is here that Tomo gets something more than a meal as he introduces her to his transgender partner Rinko (Ikuta).
It's not long before the three settle in as a family. A mother figure is a mother figure, Tomo relishes in the affection and the discipline of Rinko whether it's the delicately put-together bento boxes with faces on the food that Tomo won't eat so as not to tarnish the cuteness or the finger wagging she receives from Rinko when the Wiimotes are not out away after playing. Scenes of Rinko's job as a nurse - Mugi Kadowaki has a small role as a coworker - and a side story involving a more effeminate male classmate of Tomo's indicate Ogigami's concern with a larger social theme. Tomo's life at home soon has an effect on her life at school, specifically with this boy who's become an outsider with his peers and even his own mother.
The way Ogigami makes it all work without resorting to finger-wagging or overt emotional manipulation is the way she centers her stories around an action. With her past works this was in the form of cat rearing in Rent-a-Cat, coffee brewing in Kamome Diner, haiku in Love is 5-7-5!, or the metaphor of Eastern vs. Western toilet designs in the English language, Canada-set Toilet. Ogigami's incorporation of knitting is masterfully used as both a plot device and a means for characters to communicate without words. Rinko is working up to a specific number of yarn creations that are loose replicas of a certain part of the male anatomy she is planning on having removed. This knitting goal gives the film a light overall structure but Ogigami finds a wealth of uses for the it.
The prejudice Rinko faces is not easily solved just as Tomo's home situation is not given an easy resolution. But if you're thinking the movie's last act will become a Kramer vs. Kramer rehash you're not giving Ogigami enough credit. Viewers will know who took better care of Tomo without the need of courtroom testimony (there's doubt there would even be a case for Rinko at this time in Japan). As for Toma Ikuta, this film is the perfect other side of the coin to his turn in Miike's The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio, his Rinko is a quiet surprise.