Interview

 
 
Place: New York

Her New Frontier

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

On the day after the United States Presidential Inauguration this year, the Women’s March was held in the multiple cities across the country. From kids to elders to immigrants to LGBTQ, people from different communities and races all joined hands in solidarity to protest discrimination. At the New York Asian Film Festival, presented every summer at Film Society of Lincoln Center, five LGBTQ-themed films were selected for this year’s lineup, reflecting people’s interests and wishes as one of the festival’s colors.

 

One of the LGBTQ-themed films chosen this year was writer/director Naoko Ogigami’s (“Kamome Diner”, “Glasses”) new feature “Close-Knit”, her first film in five years. Abandoned not for the first time by her unreliable mother Hiromi (Mimura), 5th-grader Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) goes to stay with her uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani). There she meets Rinko (Toma Ikuta), her uncle’s transgender girlfriend. Having never met a transgender person nor ever really been shown love before, Tomo is at first confused, but living with the gentle and compassionate Rinko, her shell begins to crack open.

 

Especially in the Japanese media, LGBTQ people tend to be shown through a humorous and comical filter. However, “Close Knit” does not go along with this tendency. Rinko is depicted as a person whose feet are on the ground, and who is, moreover, somewhat mystic. This is a unique viewpoint of Ms. Ogigami, who has lived in the United States. Once called a “healing director,” Ms. Ogigami universally illustrates different aspects of the relationships between mother and child while sharply capturing the discrimination and distress of being labeled different by others. Ms. Ogigami’s new frontier is not only restorative, but also fervent and subtly blinking with all sorts of possibilities.

 

 

COOL sat with Naoko Ogigami who visited this year’s New York Asian Film Festival to discuss her new feature, “Close-Knit.”

 

 

“There is the reality

that not many people can accept the LGBT theme yet”


 

People may want to see the film because Toma Ikuta is playing a transgender character, but actually the core of the film is a mother and child story.

When I first met Toma, I told him, “This film wouldn’t be interesting simply because you play a transgender character.” So from the beginning, we didn’t focus on him playing a transgender woman. We were going to make a film that focuses on family.

 

Why did you choose “mother and child” as a theme?

I read in the newspaper about a transgender woman who, when she was 14 years old, said to her mother that she wanted boobs. Then this understanding mother attached pads in a bra and made fake boobs. I thought that was a fascinating story and went to meet the mother to interview her. So the “mother and child” story was a natural outcome. I didn’t want to make a film in which a transgender person is suffering from his or her gender in the first place. That, of course, is an issue that I couldn’t ignore, and it’s in our film as well, but more than that, I wanted to show their relationships with their mothers in this film.

 

Many personalities of different gender and sexual expression are constantly in Japanese media, however, in real life, how society treats them is still a question.

Rinka Kakihara

When I wanted to interview the mother from the newspaper article, I contacted the journalist who wrote the article. There had been a special LGBT section in the newspaper the day before, and in there was a story about a transgender man who used to be a woman who died because she didn’t know what her identity was and therefore was in constant agony. It was almost a suicide. This mother had read the story and posted the boobs story because she wanted to show that sad stories aren’t the only LGBT stories. But, according to the journalist, this mother was a rare case. Most parents can’t really accept their children, or can’t accept everything even though they try to understand.

 

In fact, when I told my acquaintance that I made a film like this, she said, “Oh, it’s a trend, isn’t it?” The film was accepted well in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but not many people went to the theater to see this film in other regions. Because there is the reality that not many people can accept the LGBT theme yet, we included that reality and discrimination in the film.

 

Mr. Ikuta’s natural feminine behavior is very impressive in the film. Was he conscious about his character outside the set as well?

I didn’t tell him to do that, but I heard that he was doing it anyway. When filming began, the way he walked on the set was as a man, so I told him, “All of the staff have to think you’re cute and they have to film you cute, so you have to come in a woman.” He was wearing skirts at home and tried very hard to embody the character.

 

Mr. Kiritani, who plays Rinko’s boyfriend Makio, has played passionate characters in the past, but for this film he plays a gentle character who accepts Rinko as she is.

Kenta Kiritani

I wanted Makio to protect Rinko, so I wanted an actor taller than Toma. I also had the image that Kenta was a passionate guy, but I was watching a TV drama called “The Emperor’s Cook,” which he was in, because I liked the writer, and he was kind of sexy in the drama, probably because he’s now in his mid-30s. I cast him out of my curiosity about what could happen if he played a more relaxed character.

 

 

 

“In the United States, I had an environment

where I was able to be friends with LGBTQ people”

 

 

Many of your stories up to this point have been stories sort of away from reality, but this film is much more realistic, including the social issues that we are facing now.

This isn’t just about Japan, it’s also all over the world now, but there is a feeling of entrapment in our society, which gives people a hard life. Last year, I was one of the jurors at the Pia Film Festival, and I realized that the films made by young people were all suffocative: everyone expressed their difficulty of living, and I felt discomfort about it. They are not free.

 

Struggle is a strong quality of “Close-Knit,” and it’s completely different from “Kamome Diner” or “Glasses.” I’m aware that you wanted to take a leap from being a “healing filmmaker.” Do you think any of the struggling aspects of this story synchronize with your own struggle as a filmmaker?

Kenta Kiritani (left) & Rinka Kakihara (right)

This is my first film since I gave birth to my twins. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make a film for five years, so I was really enthusiastic about this project, like, “My second chapter will begin!” Toma said to me that my attitude was leaning forward, so I think I was battle-ready, so much as everyone could tell. I felt a sense of danger being conscious of the current state of the Japanese film industry; I would never be able to make a film based on an original screenplay. So, I think there might have been a connection where the quality of the story met my own anxiety about never failing.

 

Did living in California and New York cultivate your curiosity towards the LGBTQ people’s relationships with their families?

Naoko Ogigami © Taiyo Okamoto

That’s for sure. When I was living in Los Angeles, I had many friends who were gay. I was attending USC (University of Southern California), which is very competitive, but my gay friends were so kind to me. So in the United States, I had an environment where I was able to be friends with LGBTQ people because my gay friends were helping me in school, and my landlord was transgender. However, they all disappeared from my everyday life when I went back to Japan. I was feeling something wrong about it, so I had a wish to make a film about them.

 

Many times LGBTQ films end up being tragic stories. This film doesn’t go along with the tendency.

I’m so excited about the reaction of the audience here today. People in Europe were very interested. Because it’s a story about a transgender woman, they might have expected it to be sad, but the film has a lot of humor and I was so glad they laughed so much. I’m hoping that the audience today laughs too. This is not a sad story, so I hope they enjoy the film.

 

 

Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Production Photo Courtesy © 2017 Close-Knit Film Partners

 

 

 

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