Knitting Perceptions and Evolving Conceptions of Family Through Naoko Ogigami’s Close-Knit by Poorvi Ahuja

As an educator, I have always reflected on the question: “What could be the ways in which one can harness gender sensitivity without being too obtuse about it?” I remember the teacher making an almost blasphemous remark in one of the Gender Sensitisation classes I attended, “Do you think these children [the ones born to or taken into guidance by LGBT parent(s)] will ever have a normal childhood?”

“Normal”; what constitutes the normative existence? What eludes it? What is it to be normal in this world? I kept pondering over these questions. 5 years of formal literary training had freed me from social conceptions and conventions; dismissal was easy. But how do you interrogate into someone’s truth biases, how do you logically discern and affirm your own truth biases? As an educator in the making, I started looking for relevant questions rather than adopting a recluse. The same year, I also read, heard and discussed widely about the Indian teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. His public talks and interviews which have been put together as books made one thing very clear– the impact of conversations can be phenomenal. It is only through dialogue that anything can be conceived. Continuing in the same vein, Luce Irigaray, in her seminal work ‘The Way of Love’, attempts to bring about a new narrative in communication in order to bridge the thinking. This idealism serves two fold purposes- first, it interrogates the inherent masculinity in our subject nouns (especially languages of the West). Second, it emphasises that in a language like love, both beings hold equal importance and one’s position cannot be compromised.

Close-Knit is a poignant reminder of how dialogue is central to questioning the “normative” rules set by the society. Typical of the slow, tender narratives of Japanese film-making, and true to her own style, Ogigami’s art work is laced with metaphors but overall exudes an unornamented effect. These stereotypically befuddling questions are presented by her with utmost simplicity, and her representation is inclusive of transgender narratives presented through a clear, unambiguous lens of an 11 year old child, Tomo. The most interesting part of Ogigami’s narrative is the fact that the film revolves around the life of Tomo experiencing herself in the shadow of the trans-sexual character, her uncle Makio’s live-in partner, Rinko. This takes me back to the essential question: what is normal? Who decides that the normal is a more viable option than other alternatives?

The fragile cherry blossoms keep breaking and flowing along the river; Ogigami keeps building a rich literature against the canonical form of gender-interrogation. The intense narrative begins with the negligence that Tomo faces by her mother who, unable to nurse her own wounds, has almost no engagement with her daughter’s life. Tomo, on the other hand, grows up more responsibly as she compensates the lack of an active presence of the maternal figure. Packaged rice-balls become her daily meal.

As her mother decides to elope once again, Tomo returns to her uncle, Makio. A sudden excitement on realizing that she can play Wii at his place disappears as she realizes that her uncle stays with a woman now. This is where her journey into talking, understanding and knowing about the spectrum of sexualities begins.

An earlier introduction to a character, Kai, who is ignored by the school and Tomo because of his latent interests in males, is also significant to the story. The outsider Kai attempts to befriend Tomo but is ignored by her. This is when Kai’s story largely becomes a precursor to Tomo’s story. Tomo becomes the centre of jokes for all her classmates when they learn that she is living with a family of “freaks”.

The words, “abnormal”, “unusual”, “freak”, and so on; continue to ghost the contemporary LGBT narratives even today. However, it is important to remember that all acts of “normalization” are also acts of domination. The society, whose primary examples here are Kai’s mother and Tomo’s mother; attempts to subdue the voices of these marginalised narratives by proclaiming a hierarchy in purview of mothering. The idea that mothering can be an act of smothering is as interesting here as is problematic. Tomo’s mother has wilfully given up any interest in her life and later returns only to claim her by dint of being her biological mother. Her questions are the mechanisms applied by many orthodox schools of thought, for example, how will Rinko be able to explain periods to Tomo? — the underlying meaning being that motherhood is only viable for people born as women, not the ones who become a woman. Reminiscent of Luce Irigaray’s understanding here, it is only in the act of “being born as” that our essential characteristics are highlighted by society; “becoming” is often ignored. However, it is only in the processes of becoming that being can be envisioned. We continually attempt to become something more, and rediscover and fashion our own being.

Although Rinko has sexually transgressed from a male to female, yet she by no means finishes her almost spiritual journey of transformation here. The motif of burning 108 penises that she has knit from wool over a period of time may sound to be “irrational”, but Ogigami’s artistic portrayal and enriched dialogues between Rinko and Tomo contextualise this motif beautifully. Rinko explains from the perspective of Buddhism, how one has 108 wordly desires to shed. This not only hints at the body of the male that she is shedding — almost a rebirthing of a new soul in a new body — but also the anger and hatred that she has witnessed all these years. This motif also indicates a very interesting contrast between the choice Rinko was free to make with the support of her mother and the choice that was denied to Kai by his mother. Rinko learnt knitting through her mother who had knit wooden breasts for her as she was growing up. Rinko’s mother symbolically unveiled the process of knitting as a cathartic one through which even the young Rinko had received abundant of comfort. This is significant in the canon of LGBT representation: as her quiet rebellion encompasses both the torment that she has to go through, and the invincible spirit she represents. The strength that the dominant forces use, especially through the means of repression, hold no viabilty in front of Rinko’s dogged determination. Rinko understands her limitations but decides not to give up to the fate, putting up a good fight against the perceptions of the world.

Kai and Tomo’s stories, although distinct from each other, finally coalesce at the juncture where Kai admits defeat to the harsh reality of the world and his mother’s staunch disapproval of anything/anyone she considers “unusual”. He realises the extent of his mother’s horror on discovering the love letter that he had written for a boy. Continuing the metaphor of the flowing river which was a source of Tomo’s relief in times of crisis, Kai’s elaborate act of taking his life one pill at a time, is entrenched in the image of a fish; the fish which wants to swim unbridled in the ocean of being but has been refused its own existence. Just as the fish disappears, Kai also attempts to disappear.

The moment of juxtaposition of their stories is almost startling. Rinko’s understanding ensures that Tomo gets the comfort of a home even in the absence of her mother. On the other hand is the painful image of Kai lying sedated in his room, away from the comfort of his mother.

One important contribution of this film has been to affirm the presence of Rinko as Tomo’s mother, despite the fact that Tomo was not born to Rinko. The sacrosanct intimacy they shared enabled Tomo to recover from her pit of despair and social obligations into a more humanised form of herself. The anger that she bore gave way little by little.

The film clearly brings out the idea that a family is not made up solely of a male/female dynamic, but rather love and support from each other. The little bento boxes that Rinko lovingly prepared for Tomo had managed to melt her bitter heart and accept life with more grace and reverence. As for Rinko, her womanhood may not lead to motherhood in terms of giving birth but it had definitely given her the status of Tomo’s mother. The gender binary construct often rests on the preconceived patriarchal notion that women are natural caregivers, while men are the breadwinners. However, the film although does not subvert the “typical” male/female roles, but it does ensure better autonomy to voices outside the stereotypical male/female structure by engaging characters with other sexualities. By blending these characters in the natural rhythm of the movie; by not propagating through extraordinary events but interrogating ordinary realities, the film has achieved a tremendous feat even in the atypical Japanese drama.  

This brings us back to our first question: “What could be the ways in which one can harness gender sensitivity without being too obtuse about it?” Films like these can become essential resources into subliminal ways of gender sensitisation, to affirm the positive spaces for families which do not hold gender biases, and to imagine and cultivate a childhood with the truth-affirmation of all gender co-existences. It is only through harnessing a dialogical space that an inclusive space can be envisaged. It is time that films start broadening their horizon of representation of people with various sexualities just as the modern day cinema has been incorporating people with a wide spectrum of personalities. It is only through a positive representation such as that of Rinko and Kai’s that the cinema can envision a heterogeneous society, both in the film and outside.

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