When we first meet Rinko (Ikuta Toma), she has already reached a place in her life that many people can only dream of. She has transitioned completely, though she hasn’t yet legally changed her gender. She works at a nursing home where everyone seems accepting, and she’s living with her mild-mannered boyfriend Makio (Kiritani Kenta) who loves her unconditionally. Her mother is assertively supportive, and has been since her childhood as we learn in flashbacks. When Makio’s 11-year-old niece Tomo (Kakihara Rinka) takes up residence with them, she is initially taken back but quickly accepts and embraces Rinko as a surrogate mother figure. Though obviously still dealing with many challenges, Rinko is able to talk to her loved ones about her gender, body and transitioning process without reservation.
Close-Knit is as idealized a situation as one can create for a transgender woman in contemporary Japanese society, and Ogigami acknowledges this: Rinko’s mother bluntly points out that her daughter is incredibly lucky to have found a loving boyfriend whose parents also happen to no longer be around. That isn’t to say that the film is free of real-world threats and disturbances. Close-Knit highlights the difficulties and prejudices that those who are different experience from a young age. Tomo is at Makio’s because her mother has abandoned her, and her gay classmate is bullied by peers. Meanwhile, the suspicious eyes of a child welfare officer, the clamor of a male hospital room and the disparaging words of a judgmental parent indicate the trials that Rinko must face on a daily basis.
However, Close-Knit lets the immediate threats quietly subside, if not actually resolve, and shields the audience from the worst while affirming the best of the protagonists. Though she has mood swings and occasional mean words, as can be expected of any preadolescent in her situation, Tomo is a stronghearted kid who, when confronted for the first time by an outsider’s discrimination against Rinko, fights back immediately. Kiritani’s Makio is a steadfast partner who says all the right things and resists complication. Ikuta Toma subtly and effectively portrays Rinko as a resilient and nurturing soul who longs to create a family of her own.
If there is any quibble in the characterization of Rinko, it’s that she is too nice. Ever the gentle and patient caretaker, she wears soft cardigans, makes beautiful bentos and knits tirelessly. These well-meaning characteristics serve to effectively contrast with Tomo’s absent mother, but they can also be read as shallow shorthands for femininity. Then again, the entire film is nice and gentle. This is all in keeping with Ogigami’s style; she doesn’t upset, she heals.
Close-Knit may have taken the rose-tinted route with its pleasant characters and uplifting tone, but it also empathetically discusses gender identity on a personal level and comfortably depicts a family environment that some may see as unconventional or taboo. The ordinary and undramatic domestic niceness afforded Close-Knit‘s transgender protagonist is even harder to come by in cinema than stories of darkness and pain.