|Released: October 20th, 2001
Director: Isao YUKISADA
Run Time: 122 min
For some time now, a significant amount of research on Japanese society has focused on marginalized communities and the problems they face.1 GO’s representation zeros in on the idea of the eternal victimhood of Koreans. A powerful film, GO examines the issue of multiculturalism and identity in Japan.
Koreans numbering the tens of thousands migrated to mainland Japan for forced labor during the Imperial occupation of Korea during World War II. After Japan’s defeat, many of the Koreans residing in Japan lost their Japanese citizenship because Korea was no longer under their rule. Also, Japan’s laws determine citizenship through blood and not location. In other words, the Japanese government denies legitimacy to a Korean born in Japan, but an ethnic Japanese born overseas is guaranteed citizenship until the age of 21. Of course, there is an alternate process of naturalization, but it’s so rigid that it offers plenty of room for discrimination.2
The film was well received critically and was Japan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 74th Academy Awards in 2001. The story revolves around Sugihara/Lee, a high school student of Korean decent but born in Japan, and his relationship with a Japanese girl named Tsubaki. This idea of an ethnically mixed relationship accompanies various struggles by Koreans to integrate into Japanese society.
Those of ethnic Korean decent–who are referred to as zainichi–face a complicated existence within the Japanese mainland. On the level of style, GO examines this idea of eternal victimhood which revolves around a dynamic created between the characters of Jeong-il, Sugihara, and Tsubaki. Jeong-il’s ethnicity is the first important facet to this dynamic. As the son of a Japanese mother and a Korean father, his uniqueness lies in him being the only prominent character in the film who is of mixed-ethnicity. The creation of an ethnically mixed character in the film initiates the dilemma of choice. Other characters in the film struggle with decisions of identity, such as Sugihara and his family, who all debate between being North Korean, South Korean, or possibly Japanese. However, ethnically a Japanese and Korean, Jeong-il’s choices throughout the film represent the concept of eternal victimhood.
Jeong-il chooses to go to a North Korean school instead of a Japanese school, and this is the first important detail about Jeong-il that the film highlights. His choice to go to a North Korean school emphasizes a rejection of his Japanese identity and a subsequent embrace of his Korean ethnicity. Koreans in Japan also desire to preserve their culture, language and way of life.3 To reinforce this idea, Sugihara mentions that Jeong-il goes to North Korean school because he wants to teach there in the future. In this regard, Jeong-il’s character not only embraces his Korean side, but extends beyond that with his desire to teach at the North Korean school. Additionally, Sugihara regards Jeong-il as the “genius” of the school. As someone perceived as exceedingly intelligent, Jeong-il’s desires to use his intelligence to teach Koreans and not Japanese students reflects on which group of people he wishes to help and advance.Jeong-il’s identity not only intertwines with education, his unwavering loyalty towards his friends and peers truly makes him identify with Koreanness. As a teacher reprimands Sugihara for his decision to go to Japanese school, Jeong-il diverts the attention of the teacher, who is beating Sugihara, by speaking Japanese; an act frowned upon and in some cases forbidden at the school due to the strict adherence to the Korean language and culture. He goes far enough to speak Japanese, which more or less guarantees him a beating, in order to protect his Korean friend Sugihara. This scene holds particular interest since he uses his Japanese, to protect a Korean. Despite Jeong-il’s favor for his Korean side more, he “uses” his Japanese to his advantage, so long as it helps a Korean. In this manner, Jeong-il’s persistent connection to his Korean peers helps to form and reinforce his identity.
With the film having established his “Koreanness”, the sense of eternal victimhood becomes all too clear. Jeong-il, on the platform at the subway station, attempts to stop a Japanese school boy from harassing a young Korean girl. The girl wears a traditional Korean Hanbok and when approached by the Japanese boy, she questions his intentions as she looks around at all the Japanese people surrounding her on the platform. The film, reminiscent of the “whiteness” surrounding Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, passes on the sense of a Korean being surrounded and in many ways suffocated by the setting of the scene. The people around her stare, but when she turns her head towards them as if to ask for help, or communicate her discomfort, they look away. The shot from the lens closes in on her face, with the background blurred, and this puts the focus on the reaction on the girls face, while reinforcing the distance of the world and its unwillingness to help. She is alone and defenseless; a victim, despite the relatively non-threatening intentions of the Japanese boy who only looks to “pick up the Korean girl”. To Jeong-il, who stands a few feet away, the situation looks threatening enough to prompt a walk over to push the Japanese boy away. Jeong-il’s perception of the Korean girl being a victim, once again indicates the sense of eternal victimhood. Jeong-il’s decision to immediately help the girl shows that he shares this sense of victimhood, as well as the protectiveness towards the Korean identity to be proactive in his actions to stop what he perceived as a situation of victimization.
The constructed idea is that the girl is Korean and a Japanese boy is talking to her, so she must be a victim. Jeong-il’s good intentions escalate the situation which leads to his death when one of the Japanese boys stab him in the neck. This moment defines eternal victimhood. A Japanese/Korean, who makes the choice to identify with his Korean side, moves to protect a female Korean due to his interpretation of her victimization, and in the process is killed. In this regard, the character of Jeong-il becomes the eternal victim. As he dies, no one helps him or attempts to call for help with the exception of the Korean girl. This scene alludes to the idea that simply embracing a Korean identity is enough to change one’s fate, as Jeong-il becomes a victim of his identification with “Koreanness”.
Koichi Iwabuchi, a Professor in the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University and scholar of culture and globalization, makes the statement that, “the issue at stake here is less the speaking position of resident Koreans than the reception of the Japanese”, he indicates that it is not the Korean voice that is at fault for the inequality and discrimination towards Koreans but that the obstacle originates in the ideology held by the Japanese instead. GO clearly defends this position with the utilization of the threat of miscegenation. In a scene where Sugihara reveals to Tsubaki his Korean lineage, age old concepts of miscegenation and tainted blood come to the surface. After getting his true ethnicity out in the open, Sugihara’s relief is short lived as he listens to Tsubaki’s reaction. In the reaction shot, Tsubaki bluntly reveals her fear of having Sugihara inside of her, and tells him that her father told her that Korean blood is tainted. This is of course a laughable social construct, but the fact that it makes Tsubaki shy away from Sugihara’s touch after having already been so close to him is indicative of the reception and perception that the Japanese have held on to for so long. This reaction only occurs after the establishment of Sugihara’s true ethnicity; which is the catalyst that brings Tsubaki’s feelings to the surface. In terms of style, low-key lighting shows the abrasion and distance that created in this scene between Sugihara and Tsubaki. The lighting corresponds with the topic of conversation, when both characters are on the bed discussing Sugihara’s Korean descent, as if a dark secret approaches. The faces of both characters are dark as the discussion continues, emphasizing the uncomfortable feelings both characters are dealing with in the moment. However, an important change of lighting occurs. Once Sugihara leaves the bed, the following moments of his anger and pride are emphasized by key light. He stands in front of a window shirtless as light shines down on his entire figure; he speaks out his real Korean name.The composition of this shot shows Sugihara’s figure blocking the light from reaching Tsubaki, leaving her in the dark and under the covers. By placing Sugihara in the key light during this moment, it makes him the stronger presence in the scene, especially when he acts as a shield which keeps the light from reaching Tsubaki. All the stylistic elements lift the character of Sugihara up in this moment where he confirms his Korean ethnicity, and at the same time, make Tsubaki look like a shameful Japanese. This all indicates that it is the ideology of the Japanese and not the position of Koreans that is the root cause of all the problems. Sugihara is accepted until he admits his descent, and it is the reception of Tusbaki that generates the dilemma.
The sequence of these two scenes also creates an important parallel. The death of Jeong-il, a person of mixed ethnicity followed by the threat of miscegenation from the potential physical relationship between Sugihara and Tsubaki leave the impression of an ethnically mixed life taken as well as denied life denied. The sequencing and content of these two scenes creates strong as sustained allegory which resonates long after the end credits roll, and helps GO stand alone as perhaps the strongest example in contemporary Japanese film of the struggle of integration that zainichi face.
2001 – Hochi Film Awards – Best Film; Best Actor; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress
2001 – Nikkan Sports Film Awards – Ishihara Yujiro New Actor Award (Yôsuke Kubozuka); Best Director; Best New Talent; Best Supporting Actor
2002 – Awards of the Japanese Academy – Best Actor; Best Cinematography; Best Director; Best Editing; Best Lighting; Best Screenplay; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress; Newcomer of the Year (Yôsuke Kubozuka and Kô Shibasaki)
2002 – Blue Ribbon Awards – Best Director; Best Supporting Actor; Best New Actress
2002 – Kinema Junpo Awards – Best Actor; Best Director; Best Film; Best Screenplay; Best New Actor; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress
2002 – Mainichi Film Concours – Best Screenplay; Sponichi Grand Prize New Talent Award (Yôsuke Kubozuka and Kô Shibasaki)
2002 – Marrakech International Film Festival – Best Actor; Golden Star (Isao Yukisada)
2002 – Palm Springs International Film Festival – FIPRESCI Prize (Isao Yukisada)
2002 – Yokohama Film Festival – Best Actor; Best Director; Best Film; Best New Talent; Best Screenplay; Best Supporting Actor; Best Supporting Actress
Star Max in Japan
Toei Video Company
Tokyo FM Broadcasting Co.
Toei Company (2001) (worldwide) (all media)
Toei Video Company (2002) (Japan) (DVD)
Intercontinental Film Distributors (HK) (2002) (Hong Kong) (theatrical)
Rapid Eye Movies (2003) (Germany) (theatrical)
Intercontinental Video (2002) (Hong Kong) (DVD)
Universal Pictures Finland Oy (2005) (Finland) (DVD)
Toei Labo Tech (visual effects) (as Toei Chemical Digital Effect)
Sound Mix: Dolby Digital
Camera: Arriflex 435 ES, Zeiss and Angenieux Lenses; Arriflex 535B, Zeiss and Angenieux Lenses
Laboratory: Toei Labo Tech, Tokyo, Japan
Film negative format (mm/video inches): 35 mm (Kodak Vision 250D 5246, Vision 500T 5279)
Cinematographic process: Spherical
Printed film format: 35 mm
Aspect ratio: 1.85 : 1
1. Chapman, David. Zainichi Korean Identity and Ethnicity. New York NY: Routledge, 2008.
2. This paragraph taken from; Fujioka, Brett. “Go: Japanese Anti-Korean Sentiment Personified.” Accessed Nov 13, 2010. http://media.www.oxyweekly.com/media/storage/paper1200/news/2008/04/23/Entertainment/Go.Japanese.AntiKorean.Sentiment.Personified-3343543.shtml
3. Minorities at Risk Project. “Assessment for Koreans in Japan.” Accessed Nov 13, 2010. http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/mar/assessment.asp?groupId=74003