While watching Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I often remarked to myself, “The camera is always at the right distance! Every Time!” like an idiot. But it is this observation that best captures the appeal of Ogigami’s cinema. She is not fashionable or current or modern in ways that are obvious. Indeed, her concepts and sensibility are probably downright corny. But she has judgment, and her gaze is always a respectful one. Thus her camera is always at a careful distance, marveling at the nature of her characters and accepting them for who they are. Hers is a welcoming vision, perhaps most ably realized in her masterpiece Kamome Diner (2006), where all sorts of people are brought into the fold of the narrative, their tastes, mannerisms and behavior given their place. The same applies for her latest feature, Close-Knit.
This is the most straight-forward and dramatic of all her features to date. Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) is an 11-year-old girl who, at the beginning of the film, has basically been abandoned by her mother after she runs off with a boyfriend. This isn’t Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, however, so Tomo goes off with her uncle, Makio (Kenta Kiritani) and his live-in girlfriend, Rinko (Toma Ikuta), who is transgender. Life with her uncle and Rinko is more or less wonderful, filled with bike rides, cute bento meals, and playing Wii. However, there are shocking and violent ruptures to be found here, opening itself up melodrama – when the mother of a schoolmate tells Tomo to be careful around Rinko, Tomo snaps at her; a character contemplates suicide while playing the violin in darkness; and, perhaps most shockingly, honest to goodness devastation as Tomo emptily hits her mother. All of these moments are brought about due to intolerance, which is possibly the one thing which might break the placid nature of Ogigami’s cinema.
Most of the film’s most fascinating scenes are brought about thanks to Rinko. The film’s sole flashback is given over to her, when she first realizes that she wishes she had breasts. Once this revelation is made, her mother dutifully knits her a pair – a vision of acceptance that is unbelievably moving. The film depicts Tomo’s fascination with Rinko and her body with respect, taking time to answer questions that might reasonably occur to a child who had never encountered someone transgender. But, most importantly, it paints Rinko as a rich, complex figure. Her wants and desires are given credence in the narrative, and her pain is expressed in private ways.
In the film, knitting is coded as a therapeutic exercise, a way to work through anger and other dark emotions, eventually acting as a sort of ritual marking Rinko’s full transition to her female identity. A key moment of the film finds Tomo locked inside a closet, and Rinko trying to talk to her with a plastic cup string telephone. They tell each other secrets. Ogigami cuts between Rinko kneeling on the tatami mat, and Tomo inside of the closet. When Tomo tells Rinko that she saw her missing mother, all that registers is a halting movement as Rinko tells Tomo that she’s going to get more knitting supplies, putting down the paper cup slowly and exiting the room. The moment is not overplayed: Tomo’s words are completely understandable, but so is Rinko’s emotional reaction to them. The depth of their relationship crystallized at the moment that Tomo realizes she can hurt the ones she loves.
The film’s final passages beginning with an extended long take of the breakdown of the impromptu family unit are the most harrowing of Ogigami’s cinema so far. If her previous features avoided conflict and drama, the scenario here demands it, confronting head-on the logic of its scenario, and where it inevitably must go. So although Ogigami’s films are optimistic and cheerful and precious, they are not naïve – so the film’s conclusion is painful because it seems to dramatize the limits of Ogigami’s approach and concepts, as they relate to Japanese society’s attitudes toward transgender individuals. If the film is beautiful, it is because you can see a filmmaker expanding and testing the boundaries of what their cinema can be; and then trying to create a dramatic space that’s best understood as a struggle between what is, and what we wish could be.