When eleven year old Tomo’s already mostly absent mother takes off again after a night of heavy drinking, Tomo finds her uncle Makio at the bookstore where he works to tell him. The bond between the pair is apparent as they make their way back to his apartment together. They talk about the video games they played the last time this happened, and they touch on the issue of Tomo’s mother; she has always been this way. He assures her that she can stay with him anytime, however, she should know that he is living with someone now, and he explains that this person is very special to him, and, he warns, is a little different. Tomo hesitates for a moment, but continues on with Makio. When she meets Rinko her face reveals some confusion, but she says nothing as Makio walks around pointing out the many changes that Rinko has made in the apartment. Feminine touches here and there, some new furniture. You get the sense that Tomo might be less worried about the fact that her uncle’s partner is transgender than she is about the realization that she has been displaced as the woman of the house; Rinko’s name has even replaced hers on the list of high scores on the gaming system. It’s a funny scene. In the beginning, many of their conversations are peppered with humorous touches that make light of a mutual feeling of nervous vulnerability, and over time, a relationship built on honesty, love, and acceptance develops.
I am always interested in depictions of the a-typical Japanese family, and Close-Knit did not disappoint. The relationship that develops between Tomo and Rinko is heart-warming, their evolution from adversary-like acquaintances to mother and daughter is touching, and the personal story of Rinko and her journey are treated with care. Close-Knit is definitely a sweet film, but there were aspects that I found to be excessive. As Tomo’s relationship with Rinko is developing, her classmate struggles with his sexuality and is shamed by his homophobic mother. This secondary story would have been fine in isolation, but pairing it alongside Rinko and Tomo’s story morphed the film into a social justice piece, which weakened the emotional weight of the main storyline for me.
The LGBTQ movement in Japan is just really beginning to make waves, and there are aspects of this story line that I think are worth discussion with consideration to this. Japanese society can be quite rigid when it comes to social definitions of gender, and so it was no surprise that so much attention was given to motherhood when the subject of what defines a woman is brought up in the film. Rinko is not yet legally female, and even though making this her legal gender is just a relatively small bureaucratic matter, she has decided to wait until she has performed a Buddhist ceremony that consists of burning 108 phalluses knit by hand. The process of knitting, the time and consideration given to each stitch, a meditation on her life. Tomo and Makio get involved with the project, knitting the phalluses by her side as she prepares herself for the final step in her transition, and the family of three are in attendance for the symbolic funeral for her male self. What I found interesting about this was the timing for Rinko, as it aligns with another symbolic transition: motherhood. At the end of the film when Tomo’s mother returns, Rinko asks for her permission to adopt Tomo. Tomo’s mother is taken aback, and she defends her role as Tomo’s mother by shaming Rinko: if she cannot carry a baby and cannot teach her daughter about menstruation, she is not a real woman, how could she be a mother? Tomo rushes to Rinko’s defense. It is obvious that Rinko is the better mother, after all, Tomo’s mother is the kind of person who says, “I am a woman. That comes before being a mother.” But I can’t help but wonder if Rinko’s win, by these standards, is a win at all. The timing of her transition paired with her relationship with Tomo suggests that motherhood is essential aspect of womanhood. If Rinko hadn’t met Tomo and become her mother, could she be accepted as female by Japanese standards? Could she accept herself as female? By whose standards is she operating? Close-Knit is a moving film that treats its subjects with humanity, but I felt that its perspective is on the side of the very standards that have made acceptance and progress for women’s rights and for the LGBTQ community in Japan so difficult.
Grievances aside, I did really enjoy this film. It is progressive, especially for Japan, and provides an interesting perspective on gender roles and on transgender rights in Japan. The actors were great; Toma Ikuta and Rinka Kakihara have excellent chemistry as Rinko and Tomo, and definitely are the stand out performances of the film. The characters are relate-able, the humor is on-point, the story is heartwarming -I recommend it.