Every once in a while, the LFF throws up a genuine surprise. This year threw up a couple but none more warming than Close-Knit (or Karera ga honki de amu toki wa - to give it its snappy original title). What starts out as a lovely, warm, almost cute tale of a neglected but resourceful child, gradually morphs into a wonderful meditation on isolation, prejudice and acceptance.
Naoko Ogigami's movie follows young Tomo (Rin Kakihara), who we first meet sat diligently at home eating convenience store rice balls. Later on, we see her in bed and hear her drunken mother stumbling home after work. When she returns from school that day, Tomo is all alone with only some cash and an unrevealed note from her mother. Clearly this isn't the first time this has happened and Tomo heads to the bookstore her uncle works at. Instantly recognising what has happened, Makio (Kenta Kiritani) allows Tomo to crash with him and his new girlfriend Rinko (Tôma Ikuta) at his flat.
So far, so generic but there is more here than meets the eye. Rinko is a trans woman, complete in body but still adjusting emotionally to her new life. To help deal with these emotions, she is knitting 108 'pee-wees' which she intends to burn in a Buddhist ceremony. The 108 represents her previous life's earthly desires and once she has sacrificed those, she will change her sex legally to female and will be able to move on with her life. Tomo accepts all of this with the calmness of a child who has not been taught prejudice against the trans community, a tolerance she does not show to a gay classmate.
From start to finish this is a beautiful movie on every level. The cinematography is graceful and lovely to look at but the beauty here goes much deeper than that. Ogigami's careful, patient style approaches the issue of trans acceptance in an almost tangental way - it is a good amount of time after we first meet Rinko for example before her journey is even addressed. But gradually as we see Tomo slot into the wholly unconventional family setup and Rinko's mothering blossoms, ideas of conventionality fall away and we are left looking at the family in a different light. Ogigami cleverly and subtly contrasts this with Tomo's treatment of her gay classmate and his family's complete lack of understanding as to what their musical, A-grade son is going through.
Kakihara is magical as Tomo. Fierce, determined and spectacularly independent for her age, she is also childish, exasperated and inwardly mortified by her mother's irresponsible behaviour. It's a complex range of emotions for a young actor to carry off and she convinces completely. Likewise, Ikuta plays Rinko perfectly. Rinko is down to earth and on the surface at ease with her transition but as she begins to deal with her feelings for the young child and her own desires for a motherhood she can never truly achieve, cracks begin to show and the need for shared support with Tomo is obvious.
Close-Knit's depth is concealed wonderfully below a calm surface. It tackles trans prejudice with a delicate but nonetheless firm hand. Magnificently detailed in its view of daily life in urban Japan (the bento boxes that Rinko makes up for Tomo will bring a glorious smile to your face), the script is perfectly balanced between warmth and the cold hard truths of dealing with the isolation bought about by a life outside societal norms. This is a superbly touching movie that will stay with you way past its two hour run time.