Close-Knit (Karera ga honki de amu toki wa)

Japan (2017) Dir. Naoko Ogigami

“I’m a woman. That comes before being a mother.”

Not really the most tactful thing to say in front of the daughter you’ve summarily abandoned in favour of a multi-month getaway trip, but this is only partially what we are dealing with in this bold and progressive film from Naoko Ogigami. 

11 year-old Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) has once again been left to fend for herself while her feckless mother Hiromi (Mimura) “takes a break” from motherhood. Low on money and sick of convenience store bought onigiri, Tomo turns to her bookstore worker uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani) who, resignedly accepting what his selfish sister has done again, offers Tomo a place to stay with him. 

But Makio doesn’t live alone, introducing Tomo to his “unusual” girlfriend Rinko (Toma Ikuta), a transgender woman having recently completed her full transition. At first Tomo finds this arrangement odd but Rinko’s kindness and the maternal attention she pays Tomo wins her over, bonding over knitting, Rinko’s preferred method of stress relief, which comes in handy in the face of the intolerance aimed at Rinko.

On the surface Close-Knit might like seem like a lazy pun giving the unusual hobby that brings this family unit together while the full Japanese title translates to When They Knit Seriously, which is more deceptive regardless of how enigmatic it sounds. None of this has any bearing on the fact this is a rare exploration into the world of LBGT cinema for Japan, indeed one that treats the transgender issue with such sensitivity.

Under any other circumstances we would attribute this to being down to writer-director Naoko Ogigami being female, but within Ogigami’s chosen narrative, straight and natural born women are the most vociferous in their discrimination towards Rinko. Unfortunately it is young Tomo who suffers the most from this, showing tremendous maturity in her understanding and acceptance of her unconventional surrogate mother.

Having a child be the cipher for the audience to ask all of those burning questions we would be too afraid to ask ourselves allows Ogigami to circumvent any rudeness in asking them, since kids are naturally and inherently curious. Rinko herself isn’t shy about explaining the fundamentals to Tomo during their initial meeting, even offering to let the startled girl feel her breasts, which Tomo takes up a little while later.

In one scene, when Tomo, Rinko and Makio are all knitting together on the beach, Tomo flat out asks what happened to Rinko’s “pee pee” after the op; Makio balks at her brazenness, but Tomo rationalises this as her right, since they are all knitting phalluses for Rinko’s “manhood celebration”, influenced by the Buddhist tenet that we have 108 desires, which Rinko represents with 108 woolly willies!

Ogigami made this film because she noticed how the LGBT community in Japan is still hidden away unlike in other countries, and this is her clarion call for them to stand up and be counted, and for others to accept them. It was inspired by a real life mother, Asahi Shimbun, who knitted her teenage son some fake breasts in support of him revealing his gender confusion to her which Ogigami works into her script as part of Rinko’s history.

Interestingly, Rinko’s mother (Misako Tanaka) is a little too proud of her son-turned-daughter and would shout it from the rooftops if Rinko would let her, which she wouldn’t. This ties in with the film’s true concern of what exactly is motherly love, with three different examples – Rinko, a transgender able to offer it to Tomo, Hiromi who sees it as a job she needs regular breaks from, and Naomi (Eiko Koike), the indignant bigot and mother to Kai (Kaito Komie), a school friend of Tomo’s.

Kai has his own issues with sexual identity that he is unable to raise with his mother, her displays of blinkered Daily Mail-esque outrage towards Rinko silencing him for good with tragic consequences. Through all of this however, Makio sees Rinko, a nurse at the care home where his mother Sayuri (Lily) resides, as a woman and her former gender is not an issue, rejecting Hiromi’s accusations of being gay as him simply being in love.

Rinko is not just a victim of personal opprobrium but bureaucracy, insensitively put in the men’s ward in a hospital after minor accident instead of the female ward because she is still registered as male.  But for every hurdle of red tape, social resistance and spiteful abuse, Ogigami brings us back to the calm and content family unit forged through the unlikely art of knitting, letting each playful tableau of the trio clacking away in unison send the negativity away for a fleeting moment of harmless bliss.

With Ogigami being known for her more esoteric works, such as 2012’s Rent-A-Cat, she has toned down the quirkiness in favour of directness in her story telling but doesn’t succumb to being didactic, presenting the ups and downs of being transgender and those around them. The tone is largely positive and gentle, recalling Koreeda and maybe Ozu at a stretch, where even the antagonists are portrayed as pitiful and not despicable.

At the heart of the film’s success are the two astounding central leads. 13 year-old Rinka Kakihara is a cute kid but not at the Hollywood saccharine level which would undermine Tomo’s humane embracing and acceptance of Rinko, prior to ripping our hearts out in the heavier scenes. Some might criticise the choice of straight male actor Toma Ikuta as Rinko, but his astute and nuanced replication of graceful female mannerisms are effortlessly convincing.

Being a low budget indie film means the scope of its mainstream penetration is narrowed which is shame given the importance of the message Ogigami is imparting with Close-Knit – and it’s not just that wool balls are a handy substitute for your surgically removed ones. Joking aside, it is hard not to re-evaluate your attitudes after experiencing this bravely forward-thinking delight of a film.