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Spoiler alert! There are some spoilers in this article regarding the film Close-Knit (2017).

Starring Japanese actor Ikuta Toma as a transgender woman and directed by Naoko Ogigami, Close-Knit has recently been released in Taiwan and quickly raised a big storm. The trailer was rejected by the Taipei MRT company because it contained words like “diversity family” and “that’s how you teach children.” It even caught the attention of gay marriage opponents, who are boycotting it.

Close-Knit tells the story of a little girl, a white-collar man, and a transgender woman. They share with each other their life troubles, while pointing out gender discrimination in modern Japanese society.

Close-Knit is a subtle and gentle on the surface but it hides deep truths. This winning combination championed the film to win the Teddy Award at Berlin Film Festival this year. When the director Naoko Ogigami received the award, she said:

“Japan is a very conservative country, and it is still hard for LGBTQ people to come out of the closet. I hope the situation can get better.”

 Director Naoko Ogigami with the Teddy Award. / Source: Oriental Daily News​

LalaTai had the honor of interviewing Naoko Ogigami during a conversation hosted by the chief executive of the New Power Party, Alan Chen. The New Power Party has invited Japanese senators to Taiwan in the past to share their experiences on LGBT issues, so he was the perfect host.

Every life has a meaning.

Alan Chen: I am the chief executive of the New Power Party headquartered in New Taipei City, my name is Alan Chen. I used to be in charge of the gender-related issues in the party. I am so glad to see you. I really like this film, so I am happy to have a chance to talk to you. First, I would like to ask you, Close-Knit explores many issues like gender, family, and children, can you tell us what is the message this film is trying to convey?

Naoko Ogigami: Thank you. I think the main idea is that I am not trying to be against discrimination by raising my voice and eliminating the hatred for the LGBT community. Although I have the desire to do that, in this film I am not talking about that. Rather, I want to use this film to give everyone a chance to be aware of other people on Earth. And everyone's existence is important.

Casting and building a transgender character.

Alan Chen: Like you said, there are many different people around the world. In this film, you also use different roles to present various characters’ inner worlds. How did you choose the main characters in this film? What difficulties did the actors encounter when they were portraying these roles? After portraying the roles, did they learn anything about these characters?

Naoko Ogigami: My motivation for making this film came from an article I read, which was about a middle school boy telling his mother he thinks he is a girl, and that he wants fake breasts. So his mother made him a pair of fake breasts.

The girl from this article was very pretty, so I thought if I adapted this story into a film, I wanted the main character to be pretty too. I started searching for actors for this role. I had seen Ikuta Toma’s debut before, and I remembered he was a very beautiful actor. I asked him if he would like to play this part. At first, I thought he wouldn’t agree, but it was worth trying. Surprisingly, he said yes and he even fought for this role. After his part was settled, the next role was Rinko’s boyfriend, Makio. The characteristics of the role required a more socially accepted physical aspect and personality. Kiritani Kenta is taller than Ikuta Toma, and he is stronger. He is also very gentle and open-minded. Judging from his appearance, you can tell he is a good person. So the roles of Rinko and Makio were settled pretty fast. They also had no problems with the script.

While filming, the biggest challenge was to transform Ikuta Toma into a transgender woman. We also needed to rebuild his appearance and inner character. Should we let him have long or short hair? Would his outfit look awkward or weird? Is his style too cheesy or too dramatic? In order to help Ikuta Toma build this role, we even hired a posture expert to direct him. We wanted to present a real woman through the way he stands, walks, eats, or even grabs a mug, instead of just muddling through.

The main actors in Close-Knit (left to right) Kiritani Kenta, Rinka Kakihara and Ikuta Toma. / Source: Hypesphere

Put your mind at ease, knit.

Alan Chen: I see. Thanks to your effort to build the roles, we can see such vital characters on the screen. What impressed me the most about these touching characters is the scene where Rinko knits. You use knitting as a symbol of many things in this film. Personally, I think it represents solving problems, relaxing, overcoming difficulties, and holding on until the end. I would like to know if there is any message you want to convey through knitting.

Naoko Ogigami: So why did I use the element of knitting in this film? I think the original reason was a book.

Once, I went to a bookstore and saw a book about a gay male couple from Sweden and Norway. Both of them were experts in knitting, and they published a book about it. In this book, there were many pictures of them knitting together. These pictures looked so charming and adorable, so I thought if I used this element in my film, it would look cute.

Another reason is that, I studied film in the States when I was young. I returned to Japan at the age of 28. I was broke, jobless, and without a boyfriend. I had nothing. So I became addicted to knitting. I found out that knitting could put you at ease and calm your soul. Though I have stopped knitting, judging from my previous experience, I know knitting can comfort your soul.

About “Mr. Trouble” in this film, it is quite an interesting design. I was thinking that if we wanted to add knitting in this film, it would be boring if we just knitted sweaters or scarfs. So I spent six to seven hours a day in a café thinking about what they could knit in the film. After several weeks, we came up with the idea of knitting a penis-shaped fabric which we called “Mr. Trouble.” After this, the film finally took shape. It also started to make sense.

Knitting plays an important role. / Source: moviemovie

To end discrimination we have to start from discussion.

Alan Chen: Next, I would like to discuss the differences between Taiwan and Japan. Japan is seemingly more open-minded about sex; for example: adult films and transgender characters on television. But I am not sure if transgender people face bullying or other problems in reality. How do people view these porn stars, the sex industry, and transgender artists? When you shot this film, what did you think of the Japanese society’s attitude toward these minority groups?

Naoko Ogigami: I think Japan is an extreme country in terms of gender and sex. The open-mindedness is quite true, but there are also some ideas which are not acceptable.

You mentioned that porn stars and transgender people appear often on TV, but they are not the transgender people you run into in reality. The average person treats them as some kind of entertainment. From this point of view, we can understand why they are acceptable. But if these transgender people are your family, neighbors or friends, most people are not okay with it. So when I create films, I want to show this situation and also our reactions.

Alan Chen: It sounds like the LGBT community still suffers many difficult situations. How could you change this?

Naoko Ogigami: I think it is really hard for the LGBT community to come out in Japan. Compared to the Western developed countries, Japan is still behind, especially regarding gender issues. Japanese people insist that men should look like men and women should look like women. The boundary between the two genders is very clear.

When will Japan have a female Prime Minister? I don’t think we can expect that in the next fifteen years. I hope this kind of situation will change, and people will have a more clear understanding of gender issues. This is also my motivation for making films. But I am not sure about what we can accomplish. I heard that Taiwanese people are discussing same-sex marriage, which is a good thing that I am happy to see. Is Japan able to deal with this issue? I think we can at least start from a discussion.

Children’s innocence can change the world.

Alan Chen: Actually, it is quite similar in Taiwan. At the beginning, people paid little attention to this issue. Then, minority communities raised their voices until they were heard. They held demonstrations, established associations, organized activities, and promoted gender education, just the same way you portrayed it in this film. I think this is really important. We have to constantly push this issue into the public eye. Then people will have a chance to think. If we lose this chance, then the fight will die.

Naoko Ogigami: You mentioned the issue of education, which I really agree with. In the last part of the film, things are described from the little girl’s perspective. I think children are very innocent. Even though they may hold some prejudices and discriminate, they can still remove these flaws by learning and trusting other people. As for adults, they already have some solid prejudice. No matter how hard you try, they won’t listen to you.

Tomo from Close-Knit / Source: Viewshow

What would you like to say to the LGBT community?

Alan Chen: Speaking of how to change the plight of minority communities, another important part of the film is family support, and this is a huge challenge in Taiwan. Many LGBT people cannot come out because of family reasons. But, on the other side, if they finally do come out, then, they are willing to stand up for their rights. In this case, family support is important. Family plays a crucial role in Taiwan, Japan, and in your film. I wonder: in your life, do you have friends who have also suffered from bullying, and have you heard about such incidents? Did you make Close-Knit as a film to present your perspective on family support?

Naoko Ogigami: Indeed, having your family's support is the key to coming out. In this film, Tomo’s classmate is gay. His mother strongly denies his sexual orientation. In fact, the inspiration for this role was from my best friend, who is gay. He is really open to people around him, and he also clearly owns his sexuality. But his mother is a devout Christian. He once told us that he would never come out to his family in his life. So I created a similar character in this film, and I told him “never ever think you are sinful” through Tomo’s words. Your mother is not always right. This is another statement I want to deliver to my friends.

Tomo’s classmate in Close-Knit. / Source: moviemovie

Naoko Ogigami: Indeed, I want to bring related issues into my future works. I have been to the States. You can see a pair of LGBT parents bringing their adopted children to a restaurant to have a meal, which is a pretty common thing there. But when I go back to Japan, I haven’t seen this once.

I think Japanese society can gradually become more open. So we may see such scenes as LGBT families having meals in restaurants in our daily lives more often, which is also am ideal situation I want to witness. I hope I can present such an image in my next work.