By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Beautifully performed and exquisitely made, Close-Knit presents potentially controversial material in a way that is accessible to general audiences, while still providing a thoughtful, sensitive examination of that particular subject.
Rinka Kakihara plays Tomo, an eleven year-old girl who endures an unstable home life, dealing with an irresponsible mother (Mimura) who frequently disappears for days on end. Left some money and a pile of convenience store food, Tomo takes on various parental duties, such as organising herself for school, getting to and from school, as well as trying to keep the flat in reasonable order (these early scenes remind one of Hirokazu Kore’eda’s unforgettable 2004 drama Nobody Knows). These are responsibilities a child of Tomo’s age shouldn’t have to shoulder, and as such has left her lonely and disconnected, her world seeming empty and incomplete.
When Hiromi (her mother) briefly appears and then almost immediately disappears again, Tomo visits her uncle, Makio (Kenta Kiritani), who works at a local bookstore. Unimpressed by his older sister’s actions, Makio asks if Tomo would like to stay at his apartment until Hiromi finally returns, to which she says yes. Makio warns the youngster that he is currently in a relationship, and that the new partner has moved in with him, news which takes Tomo by surprise. A bigger surprise awaits when Tomo meets Makio’s new girlfriend, Rinko (Toma Ikuta), a transgender who has gone through the necessary surgical procedure to become a woman, physically aligning with what she already feels inside.
Tomo is quite curious about Rinko, along with the courageous decisions she has made, and a friendship slowly develops between the two. Despite some initial confusion, Tomo also comes to understand the genuine feelings Makio and Rinko have for one another, and it changes her whole perspective on how she views her surrounding environment, particularly in regards to classmate Kai (Kaito Komie), a bullied student who is struggling with his own sexual identity. Unfortunately Kai’s mother Naomi (Eiko Koike), who is shocked when she sees who Tomo is fraternising with, will not only cause problems for her own son, but for the trio as well.
Close-Knit is a delicately handled film, one which treats its characters and subject matter with care and respect. By looking through the eyes of an innocent child, who doesn’t immediately discriminate against or automatically dismiss another individual’s choice of lifestyle, writer/director Naomi Ogigani shows how easy it should be to accept and be informed about something we may not instantly understand. Ogigani explores various reasons why the lives of these three, who increasingly look and feel like a family, are needlessly and cruelly complicated, via sweeping misconceptions that are hurtful and unwarranted. Whether it be the prejudices that are taught in the classroom, at work, or even passed down from one generation to the next, Ogogani compassionately lays down a foundation at how misconceived viewpoints can change.
Some may criticise Ogigani’s gentle approach, and it’s true Close-Knit doesn’t have the provocative grit of films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tangerine, and Lawrence Anyways, or the outright brutality of Boys Don’t Cry, but it is apparent that this is not the director’s intent. Instead, she concentrates on all the small details that brings these people together, overcoming whatever differences they may have or what society may think. There are definitely discriminatory hurdles to overcome, but there is a warm, generous humanity in Ogigani’s work that is delightful and distinctive. Anyone who has seen her previous efforts, which include Kamome Diner (2006), Glasses (2007), and Rent-A-Cat (2012), will agree that Ogigani loves to quietly observe her characters, allowing them and the environment they inhabit to gradually develop and connect, following their continual attempts to lead a life that is hopefully true to themselves in a manner that is both contemplative and optimistic.
Young Kakihara delivers an emotionally rich performance as Tomo, and it’s extraordinary to think that this is her feature film debut. This talented young actress will soon be seen in the upcoming Netflix series The Town Where Only I Am Missing (aka Erased), based on a 2012 manga that has already been adapted as an anime series and live-action movie (both in 2016). Ikuta (Prophecy, Brain Man) underplays Rinko with a measured intelligence, never allowing the role to become a campy stereotype, which has happened with some Japanese productions. The relationship between Rinko and Tomo is utterly believable, with moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. Ikuta’s last film, the deliriously over-the-top action/comedy The Mole Son: Hong Kong Capriccio, couldn’t be any more different this, and shows the considerable range this popular actor has.
Kiritani provides strong support as the nebbish Kenta, as does Komie as Kai, while the rest of the impressive cast, including Misako Tanaka, Lily, Mugi Kadowaki, Fuuto Takahashi, and Koike (whose character probably contains the film’s most conventional elements), are all excellent.
Guided by a caring, gifted hand, and anchored by two outstanding performances, Close-Knit is dignified and open-minded, thankfully never succumbing to cheap, easy sentimentality. While some may dismiss its deceptively light approach (like certain viewers did with Kore’eda’s sublime Our Little Sister), they will miss out on a film brimming with a generous, humane spirit.