While LGBT characters seem to be present in almost every Japanese drama or film, the reality is far from that in fiction; the members of the LGBT minority more often than not face scorn and are often shunned in their everyday lives. This is what makes Naoko Ogigami’s newest feature, Close-Knit (2017), that much more important: one of the central characters is a transgender woman who is not depicted as a comic relief character (which is the way that cookie usually crumbles in Japanese cinema), but as a real human being who is doing her best to live and love like any other person. Yes, Close-Knit, which also deservedly won the Audience Award at this year’s Far East Film Festival, is a film that will warm your heart and perhaps open it for another notch; but not only that. Naoko Ogigami, with this film, made an important step in the right direction by addressing this particular social issue in all the right ways – with the perfect balance of heartbreak and humour.
Close-Knit marks a new level for Naoko Ogigami who has so far both wrote and directed all of her films (which includes Close-Knit). Now a well-known presence on the international film festival podium (her films have been screened at Berlinale, Sundance, San Francisco International Film festival, etc.), her previous films have been classified as “iyashi-kei eiga”, “films that provide emotional healing”. While that sounds as a wealth of melodrama, the reality is far from it: she always addressed social issues and cultural differences, but in a much lighter way than the depth at which she dug her pen in with Close-Knit. Her growth from her beginnings in the late 1990’s when she started her film career in USA during her studies at the University of Southern California, and then after 2000, when she returned to Japan and really kick-started her feature career, is undeniable.
It is obvious that she is a talented storyteller and that we can truly look forward to the stories she has yet to tell; this is why we are especially thrilled that she took the time during her visit in Udine to sit down with us and answer a few of our questions.
Why did you want to tell this story, and what was the reaction to Close-Knit in Japan?
When I was in my 20s, I spent a very long time in the United States and I studied cinema there; I had the chance to meet many gay and LGBT friends and then when I happened to go back to Japan, I didn’t find any LGBT friends, so I felt that the situation in Japan was very far from the one in America, since they can’t easily come out (in Japan). This was something that weighed heavily on my heart, and then I discovered an article in a newspaper that was talking about a mother who had a 14-year-old boy who wanted to become a girl. The boy wanted to start the process of becoming a girl so the mother made him some fake breasts and was happy to do so for her child; this made me want to meet her and she said that she was very happy to have such a child and that she was having fun raising her. I thought it was very kind of her, and it made me want to create something for the LGBT community that was bright and very positive.
In Tokyo and Osaka, it was very well accepted; it might be used for educational programmes in Shibuya and in elementary and junior high schools, which is now in discussion. On the other hand, the film was not as accepted in the smaller cities. Their beliefs are very conservative and so they wouldn’t go to the cinema to watch the film. Before the launch of the movie, there was an online form where you could give the film a score from 1-5 based on your interest, and 400 people gave it one star which meant that they were not interested in the topic; it made me quite sad, but this is the current situation in Japan.
What was the response from the LGBT community?
Personally, I received a very good response from the LGBT community. But there are still some people that cannot accept it, even in the LGBT community, so it depends on each person.
In Japanese TV shows, it is quite common to see transgender characters in comedy shows; these are characters that are well accepted in show business, but in everyday life, the situation for the LGBT community is difficult. What are your thoughts on this?
People do accept it in comedy shows, and there is an LGBT district in Tokyo which is accepted, but the issue is that there are still many people that would be very unhappy in having a member of their family or having someone in their neighbourhood who belongs to the LGBT community.
Why did you want to pick Ikuta Toma for the main role, and did you ever consider having a transgendered person for it?
The issue is that currently there are no transgender actors in Japan; there are comedians who cross-dress, and everybody will laugh and love what they do, but they wouldn’t accept that outside of comedy. This makes it very hard for the Japanese to come out and now it seems impossible many transgendered people would decide to become actors or actresses. Perhaps in ten years’ time, the situation will change.
The reason why I chose him is that I saw his debut movie eight years ago and I thought he was a very good-looking person; the moment that I decided to have him play the transgender role in the film, I thought about the transgendered girl that was the focus of this article that I mentioned before. She was a very pretty girl so I wanted an actor who would also be very pretty; and that is why I decided to go for Ikuta Toma.
Rinka Kakihara was excellent in her role, what was the casting process like and why did you end up choosing her?
I had auditions and I met over 100 girls and Rinka was the best, she had a really good sense for acting and it was really easy for her to understand what I said. It was very easy to work with her, compared to Ikuta Toma; there were a few issues and I needed to be quite strict in giving him guidance about the role, while Rinka knew at once what I wanted and would put it into action.
The story of the transgendered girl’s mother made me think of Banana Yoshimoto, did her work influence you in any way?
I have read a lot of her novels, but I wasn’t influenced by them.
You mentioned that you had to give a lot of guidance to Ikuta Toma; the three leads they seemed to have a lot of chemistry and worked really well together. What guidance did you give to them to make it work so well?
As I mentioned, I had to give a lot of advice to Ikuta Toma. Kenta Kiritani had the role of an accepting person that has a big heart and it was the same on the set; he helped Mr. Ikuta a lot and he also supported Rinka. I think that the reason why the chemistry worked so well on the set was because of him. He was the main actor in many of his movies; some actors like him would think that they should be the ones to stand out, but he was very nice and was happy to be supportive of the others; I also said that to him. He was very understanding and this is how the chemistry came about.
Knitting plays a very important role in the film. Do you knit? And where did the inspiration for it come from?
I don’t knit, but I have some experience with it. Well; I discovered a book written by a gay couple who are artists of knitting, and so when I saw that book, it struck me. I wanted to use a similar idea in the story, and when I was writing the script I thought I wanted to have this element of knitting in the story, but I couldn’t think of how to put it into the story. I struggled every day trying to think of how I could do it, and then it just occurred to me: I could have the characters knit the thing, and that was the moment when I knew the film would really get made for sure.
Written and edited by Sanja Struna
The interview transcribed by Roxy Simons
Interviewed by Sanja Struna & Roxy Simons
Bottom photo © Sanja Struna
Close-Knit photos © Suurkiitos
All other photos courtesy of Udine Far East Film Festival