January 30, 2017 9:25 pm JST

Is Japan ready to love a transgender lead character?

Naoko Ogigami's gentle film 'Close-Knit' set to touch audiences' emotions

FRAN KUZUI, Contributing writer

TOKYO -- Naoko Ogigami and Kumi Kobata are a rarity in Japan where female directors and producers are as uncommon as independent filmmakers. When asked how they met, they turned to each other and shook their heads, laughing softly because neither could recall. Eventually Ogigami remembered it was on her 2006 film "Seagull Diner" ("Kamome Shokudo"). Suurkitos, Kobata's film distribution company, came on board as a financier and released the picture in Japan. The collaboration has yielded five films over the last 10 years, including their latest, "Close-Knit" ("Karera ga Honki de Amu Toki Ha"), a film whose subject matter is also a rarity in Japan.

"Close-Knit" ventures into interestingly topical territory, telling the story of a transgender woman, a man who loves her and the young girl who comes into their lives. Rinko (played by one of Japan's hottest young male stars, Toma Ikuta) is a transgender woman living with Makio (Kenta Kiritani, another enormously popular actor) who accepts her unconditionally. Makio's emotionally unstable sister runs off with a man and her young daughter Tomo (Rinka Kakihara) shows up at her uncle's door. Makio's girlfriend Rinko welcomes her warmly and the couple begins to care for the child. Rinko is reminded of her mother's compassion when she was a young boy and discovers her own motherly instincts through her relationship with the young girl. Tomo slowly becomes the child that Rinko will never conceive, but longs to nurture. When the girl's actual mother returns from her adventures to claim her child, a choice needs to be made.

The film is inspired by a story in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper of a Japanese woman whose tenderness toward her transgender teenager led her to knit a pair of breasts for her son to use before gender reassignment. Ogigami was struck by the woman's gentle acceptance of her child and she expanded the story to be what she thought could have happened to the young man after he transitioned to being a woman. Set amongst the promise of spring cherry blossoms, "Close-Knit" breaks new ground in Japanese cinema and opens a new personal chapter for Ogigami.

After graduating from college in Japan, Ogigami moved to the U.S. in the mid-90's to study English and film at the University of Southern California. She returned to Japan six years later having been inspired by New York independent films. "I'm not sure I'm a classic independent film maker because all films in Japan are small, but I'm certainly working in the same spirit," she said.

Whimsical journeys

Ogigami began to make films that were whimsical journeys; the story of a Japanese woman who decides to open a Japanese-centric diner in Finland ("Seagull Diner"); a lonely Japanese woman vacationing on an almost deserted island; a Japanese woman who visits her grown children in Canada and eventually experiences a longing for a "washlet" automatic Japanese toilet. "My films are always about outsiders and misfits. Perhaps the characters are a bit like me," she candidly admitted. "I've had film critics tell me that."

Ogigami posited the possibility that she makes films about women because she finds most Japanese female characters in films directed by men are an idealized version of women. "As a female film director I hope to show the reality of being a woman."

It was not until Ogigami was in her early 40's and pregnant with twins that the financing came through for her 2012 film "Rent-A-Cat", a film in four parts with stories about a woman who pushes around a cart filled with cats and rents them to people in need. "I was already pregnant when production started and I managed to shoot the film and finish it in time for the Berlin Film Festival before I had my children," she said with a smile. "Someone pointed out that it took me less time to make a film than it took to make my babies!"

"Motherhood changed me completely," said Ogigami. "Before the children I was the most important thing to myself and I spent all of my time thinking about films. Now I don't have time to have an ego and my kids and husband are the most important thing to me."

The experience and feelings of motherhood became the subject of Ogigami's next film. "This one took a lot longer," she confessed. "The girls were two years old when I started writing. They were three years old when I shot the film. My mother and husband helped out with child care, but that never stopped me from feeling guilty as I left for the train station to go to work and my girls cried seeing me leave."

Drawn to telling a story of tenderness Ogigami developed her script and brought it to Kobata to see if she could finance it. Kobata knew that while there were several transgender novels and manga that had pop culture success, there had never been a serious and tender drama touching on the subject. The "usual suspects" that loved Ogigami's work all said "No." Not ready to give up, Kobata gave the script to someone she knew at Dentsu, the large Japanese advertising agency. "They loved it and immediately gave it to Japan's Johnny & Associates -- a talent agency that specializes in male talent. When two of their most sought-after young actors responded to the script and agreed to play the two leading roles, both Dentsu and Johnny agreed to invest.

Challenging roles

Ogigami and Kobata had already discussed using a transgender actor and had been casting a wide net hoping to find an experienced actor who could play the nuanced character of Rinko. One huge obstacle however was the difficulties that all small filmmakers face in raising funds, particularly in Japan. The interest and involvement of two young stars in the project gave the filmmakers the crucial financing opportunity.

"I loved working with Ikuta," said Ogigami. "He's a total man, but on the set he became so female it surprised me."

When shown the script Ikuta said he realized he had played many roles, but never that of a woman, let alone a transgender person. Playing Rinko was going to be the most difficult role he had attempted. He interviewed many transgender people to learn anything he could, including a personal friend. "Ogigami is an extremely clear person. Everything is black or white. She wrote the script and knew the character of Rinko. I tried to portray Ogigami's image yet my own feelings and ideas kept coming out. Ogigami never let up on me as an actor and eventually I began to trust her fully." Reflecting on the impact of the film on his personal thoughts, he admitted he was influenced in many ways. "I learned how difficult it is to be a woman. Incredibly I think it's easier to be a man," he said, laughing. "Making the film certainly made me appreciate women more."

Ikuta hopes "Close-Knit" will encourage more freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Japan and feels proud that he was able to help spread the message about "another form of love" in the world.

Ogigami, asked if she ever felt discrimination against female directors in Japan, noted a "certain respect" for the creative process, which could be considered beyond gender. In that respect, she does not consider being female a liability. "Sure, there was one guy on the crew who thought nothing of harassing me, but we fired him and moved on," she noted. Kobata, on the other hand, said it was "almost impossible" for women to produce films with larger budgets in a male-dominated system.

"Close-Knit" will show in the Panorama section of the 2017 Berlin Film Festival in early February. Following that, Kobata's company will distribute the film in Japan, opening it in 150 theaters on Feb. 25, 2017.

"Promotion is creative work. I made the film and want to release it with love," Kobata said. She felt confident in releasing the film because it has a great story and star power -- a definite must in Japan.

But Is Japan truly ready for the theatrical release of a transgender story? Ogigami smiled at the question. "Anyone who's [transgender] phobic will ignore the film. But Japanese people love a good cry and the film certainly offers that." Whether or not Japanese cinemagoers feel ready for "Close-Knit," the country's art, music, theater and literature have long featured a mix of classic and avant-garde, gender-bending pop culture. The Edo period of the 17th to 19th centuries and samurai culture saw the rise of Kabuki theater with men playing all the female roles, while the 20th century saw the advent of the popular Takarazuka theater in which women play all the male roles. It remains to be seen if Japanese audiences in the 21st century want to see young male stars in a transgender story. What is certain is that Ogigami has promised her next film will be about a man.

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