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Go, 2001(Film Still)

The story of Go, the Japanese Romeo and Juliet that challenged Y2K racism

Director Isao Yukisada discusses the powerful legacy of the 2001 cult classic – one of the most vibrant and timeless Japanese youth films of the era

A rebellious teen named Sugihara falls for a beautiful Japanese girl named Sakurai after they meet at a bar after school. He reads Catcher in the Rye, plays chicken in the subway, and gets in bloody fistfights in the school gymnasium. She enjoys opera, watches films by Fellini, and lives a privileged life within an affluent, conservative family. As their romance blossoms, Sugihara reveals a secret that seemingly everyone is aware of but Sakurai: he’s the son of a North Korean settler in Japan; a second-class citizen known as a “Zainichi”.

22 years after its critically acclaimed release in Japan, multiple Japanese Academy Award winner Go finally hits the UK on May 22 via Third Window Films, as part of its worldwide Blu-ray premiere. The film has become a cult classic in that time; one of the most vibrant and timeless Japanese youth films of the era.

The year was 2001, and films about kids-gone-wild were all the rage in Japan. A decade had passed since the bubble economy had burst, and in the recession years that followed, employment rates for university graduates sunk as crimes committed by minors doubled. Senior filmmakers like Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) reacted by helming “sensational, gory films” that portrayed young people “as victims of a society shaped by the older generations,” Go director Isao Yukisada recalls, speaking to Dazed via a translator. As the turn of the century loomed, Yukisada, just 32 years old at the time, decided he wanted to make his own film about youths challenging society. “Go,” he says, “was about dealing with juvenile delinquency from a different perspective.”

An adaptation of the Naoki Prize-winning novel of the same name by Korean-Japanese author Kazuki Kaneshiro, it would prove to be a radical project in more ways than one. The story, about a Korean Zainichi  (literally: “residing in Japan”) who experiences brutal discrimination at school, was almost “autobiographical”, Yukisada recalls, but “the way Kaneshiro approached the novel was pioneering”. Prior to this point, stories and films about Korean people tended to only portray them in a pessimistic or depressing fashion, says Yukisada; as victims “showing anger or sorrow of being Korean”. But here was an uplifting coming-of-age love story that defied this limited perspective, pitching the Zainichi as normal people no different to the Japanese. “It changed everything”, he says.

Race and identity thus became the core themes of the film, with the words uttered verbatim by spiky-haired Sugihara (played by Kubozuka Yōsuke, later of Martin Scorsese’s Silence) in the opening scene. It’s a savage introduction: a high school basketball game devolves into a violent beatdown, as Sugihara’s Japanese teammates turn on him mid-game. Thereafter, trouble seems to follow the confrontational Korean-Japanese teen wherever he goes, and he’s regularly forced to defend himself using the brutal boxing training his father instilled in him. Home life is no more straightforward: Sugihara’s father surrendered his North Korean citizenship at the first opportunity so that he could get a VISA to go on holiday to Hawaii. And as for Sakurai (played by Battle Royale femme fatale Ko Shibasaki), her father forbids her from dating Koreans or Chinese – because “their blood is dirty”.

“There was a lot of discrimination going on in Japan at the time that people wouldn’t discuss,” says Yukisada. And indeed, a 2003 review from Midnight Eye writer and scholar Jasper Sharp would corroborate an uneasy truth: unless you can trace your lineage back to the Tokugawa period, he wrote, to the indigenous inhabitants of Japan you’ll always be an outsider. “I think what Go did was send out the message that this is what’s going on in Japanese society in 2001,” Yukisada continues. “It showed all this discrimination that wasn’t being articulated. And the fact that the film unfolds as a love story, I think, made it easier for the audience to empathise.” 

It might have made for uncomfortable viewing for some, but thanks to a riveting, eclectic, and almost Godard-ian style, it found wide acclaim upon release. Full of wild jump cuts, freeze-frames and spontaneous flashbacks and fast-forwards, the film was likened to Trainspotting and Run Lola Run after appearing at Berlin Film Festival – and this captivating energy has ensured that it’s stood the test of time. “I was actually really embarrassed when I saw the film again after 22 years,” the director says, laughing. “The title, Go, was pushing me to do everything more speedily in the editing. There was a lot of intricate filming going on, as well, which was sometimes good and sometimes bad. But this was the first time I could see the film very objectively, and now I think this is a really youthful film.”

The film would be submitted for Oscars consideration – becoming Japan’s official nomination in the category of Best Foreign Language Film in 2022 — but not before smashing the Japanese Academy Awards in 2001. There, it won an incredible ten prizes including the coveted Best Director gong (Best Film that year ultimately went to Studio Ghibli masterwork Spirited Away). But the greater achievement, Yukisada says, was winning the admiration of his peers. Veteran filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) was fascinated by the film after attending its second private screening – his praise gave the young Yukisada the belief to push forwards in his career. Elsewhere, renowned actor Tsutomu Yamazaki (Tampopo) – who played Sugihara’s father in Go – likened the film to the works of Akira Kurosawa after seeing the finished product; Yamazaki had been a frequent collaborator of the legendary filmmaker, who’d cast him in internationally-celebrated classics like High & Low and Kagemusha.

Yukisada reflects that society has changed drastically since the time of the film’s release – “so much so that some of the Zainichi themes in Go almost feel dated, because the culture and everything about Korea has changed worldwide”. But he feels that the film had a real impact on changing people’s perceptions in Japan. Today, he observes considerable changes in society: “older generations of Zainichi Korean people used to change their names to make them sound more Japanese,” he says. “They would print these names on their business cards and use them as their real names. But today, Zainichi are proud to be Korean, and use their Korean names happily. There’s more confidence in their country. I think that’s a really big change.”

As more and more contemporary productions explore the Zainichi experience (Apple TV+’s hit Korean series Pachinko offers one of the most vivid examples), a greater understanding between two countries that share a complicated history seems more tangible than ever. But long before leading Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) headed to Korea to produce his Palme d’Or-nominated film Broker a rare instance of a major filmmaking collaboration between former colony and coloniser – it was Go that marked one of the most vital storytelling stepping stones. It’s lost none of its power today.

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