Counters (South Korea, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

“Destroy Koreatown! Let’s bring [Koreans] to the gas chambers!” shouts Makoto Sakurai, leader of Zaitoku, a self-proclaimed “civic group against the privileges of Korean-Japanese people.” Far-right Japanese nationalists spew vitriol at a protest, and two camps of people come up against them: the peaceful counter-protestors, known as “Counters,” and the Otoko, a group fighting against bigotry using violence. Otoko member Kimoto puts it bluntly: “‘If we destroy them physically,’ I thought, ‘They can’t protest.’”

There are around 700,000 Koreans living in Japan. Known as zainichi, many of them have grown up in Japan and speak no Korean, but they are still seen as “foreigners.” Lee Il-ha’s documentary Counters spotlights the anti-racism movement in Japan and the discrimination against zainichi.

Lee jumps right into things, and there is a frenetic energy to this piece, reflecting the chaos of the protests and the charged emotions of all those involved. The film focuses much of its attention on Takahashi, the leader of the Otoko. News footage of Takahashi’s arrest for assault shows the public face of this man. But supporters and detractors of Takahashi, including the head of the Counters (who would never allow Takahashi to join his group because of his suspected ties to the Yazuka) paint a different portrait. Takahashi is an enigmatic, passionate man, so committed to his cause that it is both his downfall and his salvation.

In some ways, Takahashi is a contradiction in terms, something that a supporter notes; he visits the Yasykuni Shrine (a favorite spot for right-wingers) in the morning and then helps build a shelter for marginalized groups in the afternoon! (The shelter will be for not only Korean-Japanese, but also Ainu and Japanese-Brazilians, demonstrating that racism extends even further.) Takahashi’s encounter with the Counters and their passion was the impetus he needed to finally quit the Yakuza. Still, some consider him an “extremist” because he still harbors some right-wing views. The film notes the sacrifices that he has made, putting the cause before himself. When asked if he enjoys being an activist, he says he does not. He spends most of his money on activism, and his work has jeopardized his career outside of activism.

While the people at the center of the film speak for themselves, at times the film’s visuals feel like a video game. When Sakurai debates the mayor of Osaka, their colorful words fly across the screen, hitting each other with sound effects. The subject matter is urgent enough that this somewhat gimmicky technique seems unnecessary, but it never becomes a distraction.

A montage of protests demonstrates the scale of hate against minority groups as Zaitoku descends on Tokyo’s Chinatown, Osaka’s Koreatown, and Korean schools. Sakurai declares to his supporters and his foes, “We will proudly shout, ‘We do not forgive terrorists!’”

A group of young women joins Sakurai’s ranks. They are young, fashionably dressed, and wear hygienic facemasks (ostensibly to hide their identities.) One woman shouts,” “I hate Koreans! Get out of Japan!” It is shocking and disturbing to see such “modern women” engaging in such hate speech, but they see nothing wrong with their rhetoric.

Demonstrating how hate can be passed down through generations, a young Osaka middle school student, influenced by her father’s racist views, shouts, “Forget the Nanking Masacre, we’re going to have the Koreatown Massacre!” Still, Counters stand side-by-side with ethnic Koreans at these protests. One woman, Shin Sugok, tells the Counters, “Because of you, I can live and breathe in this country.”

Lee often trains his camera on Korean schools in Japan, where heartbreaking testimonials from students capture the viewer’s attention. Sobbing, a Korean-Japanese student describes his terrifying experience at a rally, saying, “Stop the discrimination. If I [said], ‘Let’s live together,’ I thought their prejudice would disappear, but those guys were smirking…” Later, an anti-racist rapper entertains students and spreads his message of tolerance.

Some of the schools, like Korea University in Tokyo, are ostensibly controlled by the Chongryon, receiving support from the repressive North Korean regime, but this is never explored. Indeed, in a video for Vox Borders, Sakurai makes a comparison to Islamic terrorism, asking how Americans would feel if someone named a school “Osama Bin Laden High School.” It seems like there is a vicious cycle in which certain marginalized ethnic Koreans aligned themselves with the North Korean regime, fueling further Japanese hatred and thus breeding more marginalization among Koreans. Because of this, for some, the issue of discrimination is not so black and white, but Lee paints a portrait of ordinary Koreans who are just as Japanese as their ethnic Japanese counterparts, and never touches on their political affiliations, whatever they may be, because they are simply irrelevant.

Counters demonstrates that there are many ways to fight against racism. Apart from the peaceful protests of the Counters to the violent clashes of the Otoko, a third option is through the legislature. Towards the end, the Racial Equality Bill is introduced. Because this Bill, as well as its champion, a Diet member named Mr. Anita, are introduced so late, it leaves the film relatively unstructured. While this lack of narrative structure reflects the chaos of the warring organizations on all sides, it still would have been nice to see this bill introduced early on as a framing device. After the Racial Equality Bill passes the House of Councillors, the police stop the protesting Zaitoku from spewing anti-Korean rhetoric.

Having accomplished their goals for now, the Otoko disbands. “The Otoko group changed the history of Japanese citizen movements…confronted prejudices on both sides of the political spectrum,” says one woman involved with the Otoko. “Coexistence works.”

Counters is showing on July 6 at the New York Asian Film Festival.