Kenta Kiritani (left) and Rinka Kakihara in the film Close-Knit.  Photo: FEFF
Kenta Kiritani (left) and Rinka Kakihara in the film Close-Knit. Photo: FEFF

Naoko Ogigami can’t wait to see the reaction to her new film Close-Knit not least because she breaks some boundaries in mainstream Japanese cinema: A transgender character is at the film’s center and is played by one of Japan’s superstars in Toma Ikuta, no less.

Attention to the film – scheduled for release in Japan at the end of the month – will likely get an extra boost after it picked up second prize in the Panorama Audience Award at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival on February 18.

Ogigami first conceived the idea for her film after stumbling on a story in a newspaper. “It was about a transgender woman and her mother. When the woman was 14, she told her mother, ‘I want to have boobs.’ And the mother made fake boobs for her,” says the director.

Ogigami interviewed the mother and was struck how parental love can be the same no matter the make up of the family.

Close-Knit made its world premiere in Berlin on February 10 and was presented in a special preview screening at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan earlier this month, with Ogigami on hand afterwards to talk about her work.

Close-Knit conveys a beautiful yet poignant tale of Japanese contemporary families. Abandoned by a single mother, Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), an elementary school student, visits her uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani), who now lives with his transgender partner, Rinko (Toma Ikuta).

Rinka Kakihara in the film Close-Knit

Although surprised by Rinko’s appearance, Tomo slowly begins to understand her sexuality and comes to appreciate her new family.

Ogigami celebrates traditional family values, yet undermines their inherent conservatism by indicating that blood relations or sexual orientation are not mandatory requirements when it comes to being a good mother.

Ogigami’s links with the LGBT community date back to her 20s when she lived in Los Angeles for six years studying film at the University of Southern California.

“At that time I had a lot of sexual minority friends,” she says. “Once I came back to Japan, I didn’t have so many gay friends anymore. That was very awkward for me and I realized that in this country it’s still difficult to come out of the closet.”

Depictions of LGBT figures in Japanese media are still biased. There are LGBT personalities on TV, but the complexities of sexual orientation is ignored, squeezing them into stereotypical images, such as that of the sassy cross-dresser.

Although Tokyo’s Shibuya district passed a bill in 2015 that recognized same-sex partnerships for the first time in Japan, the argument for marriage equality has rarely been a subject of discussion.

Breaking free

“Japan is totally behind America and European countries” on this issue Ogigami said, adding that her own identity as a heterosexual woman made it difficult for her to approach the subjects the film addresses.

“I wondered if I could make this kind of film. Am I allowed to make this film? I always questioned myself,” she said.

Regardless of her worries, introducing these issues in an honest and open manner, and having the transgender lover played by Ikuta was a socially significant move.

While writing the script, Ogigami had no particular actor in mind.  But says she had not forgotten how beautiful she thought Ikuta looked when she first saw his face seven years ago. The director was not expecting any positive response when she decided to approach him, but “Fortunately, he said yes!”

However, it was child actor Kakihara in her feature debut who impressed the filmmaker most. Kakihara seemed to understand the complex nature of human sexual orientation.

Another challenge the filmmaker faced in Close-Knit was separating herself from a stereotypical image of the “Ogigami style.”

Her previous works – the likes of Kamome Diner (2006), Glasses (2007), and Toilet (2010) – are hugely popular among female audiences for their depictions of a slow life, away from the hustle and bustle of cities.

“I’m fed up with people calling my films “iyashi-kei” (emotional healing) or about the slow life. I wanted to try something else and new,” she said.

Introducing a transgender character seems to fit the trajectory of Ogigami’s career. Many of her previous films depict the well-composed life of characters who are marginalized in Japanese society but have managed to find a comfortable place for themselves in the world.

However, Close-Knit takes it one step further. It humorously presents a new type of family, but at the same time seriously questions the familiar family values in conservative Japan. “My previous films are almost fantasy,” said Ogigami, “This time I tried to be realistic.”