In Close-Knit, a Japanese film presented with English subtitles, written and directed by Naoko Ogigami, 11-year-old Tomo’s (Rinka Kakihara) life appears unstable and insecure. Her irresponsible mother is constantly abandoning the preteen to run away with a random man until she runs out of money and is forced to return home to start working again. In those times, Tomo retreats to the home of her Uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani) who lives with his transgender girlfriend, Rinko (Toma Ikuta). When they first meet and Rinko introduces herself to her, Tomo seems to shrink inside herself by crossing her arms and burying her head into her shoulder. Tomo, confused and uncomfortable, has never encountered someone who is transgender.
Their relationship builds through intimate scenes like when Tomo is looking at Rinko’s lacy bra strap peeking out from her dress. Rinko asks Tomo if she wants feel her breasts, and comments that each cost her 33 CCs. Tomo shyly declines. Later in the film, as Tomo becomes more comfortable, Rinko asks Tomo again if she wants to feel Rinko’s breasts. Tomo comments that Rinko’s breasts are firmer than natural ones. Rinko laughs in agreement.
Rinko packs Tomo’s lunches, brushes her hair and cuddles her to sleep. Rinko becomes the maternal figure that had been lacking in Tomo’s life. In a grocery store, a woman tells Tomo to stay away from people like Rinko. Provoked, Tomo grabs a bottle of soap off the shelf and opens fire, dousing the woman with neon blue bubbles. After this, Rinko suggests knitting as a way to keep Tomo’s anger in check. Rinko explains that whenever she encounters a situation that is sad or frustrating, she takes needles and yarn and whispers, “kuso” (damnit) under her breath with every stitch.
Rinko likes to knit and stuff phallic shapes to symbolize her body’s transition from male to female. She is waiting to officially change her identification marker to female until she knits 108 stuffed toys, a number that is sacred in Buddhism and Hinduism. As a family, Tomo and Makio begin knitting together with Rinko to help fulfill her goal. When Rinko, Tomo and Maiko are counting how many they have knitted, a play fight breaks out between the three, and dozens of rainbow-colored penises travel across the screen in slow motion.
A telling moment in the film is when Tomo, Rinko and Makio set up a picnic blanket under a canopy of cherry blossom trees. Rinko had packed a very intricate bento box that looked almost too pretty to eat. She had cut sausages to look like the weather flag that can be seen from their deck at home. Tomo soars her lunch through the air, mimicking the waving of the flag. She smiles. For the first time in her life, she is being cared for, instead of having to take care of her reckless mother. She can truly be a child instead of acting as her own parent.
There are heart-sinking moments provoked by raw, on-screen emotion coupled with quick moments of sharp humor. Ogigami’s beautiful cinematography, traversing both the bustling city and the rural landscapes of Japan, makes this film its own. I would like to have seen more footage of Rinko growing up. There was just one flashback scene when young Rinko gets her first padded bra. Close-Knit is a tender and gentle film that explores the beauty of love and family, in all its forms.
Taylor is an English major at the University of Utah fulfilling her summer internship with CATALYST Magazine.