Go (dir. Isao Yukisada, 2001) begins in Shakespearean soliloquy. Sugihara’s (Yosuke Kubozuka) seething eyes fill the screen––rapid cuts bring his figure into view. Surrounded by a flurry of basketball players, he recites:

“Race. Homeland. Nation. Unification, uh…Integration. Compatriot. Goodwill. Makes me sick. Rulers. Repression. Slaves, no… Subjects? Aggression. Exclusion. Chosen ones. Blood. Mixed. Pure. Union…”

As bodies in slow-and-stop-motion swarm Sugihara’s static form, he spits out each word, delivering them with sharp inflections of rage. A basketball is thrust into Sugihara’s hands, interrupting his narration. A group of blue-uniformed players saunter over to Sugihara, spewing out repeated demands: “Pass. Pass. Pass.” One slams the basketball out of his hands, the rest throw kicks and jabs till he is on the ground. Sugihara resumes: “Born in Japan, as a so-called ‘Korean-Japanese.’ Don’t think I’m any different. They call me this––.” The basketball players complete his phrase in unison, yelling: “Zainichi!” A moment later and Sugihara runs at them, leaping into the air and knocking them down with flying kicks; an angry symphony of electric guitars and drums soundtrack his fury. Guttural screams from Sugihara add to the cacophony. Laughs break into the soundscape and the on-screen movement slows to a freeze-frame of Sugihara’s glaring visage. He interjects: “No. This is my love story.”

As Sugihara asserts, Go is a love story. But while the film’s diegesis grounds itself on this assertion, romance is not its main concern. Rather, Sugihara’s coming-of-age is anchored in an exploration of ethnic discrimination. Sugihara is a Japan-born North Korean––referred to as “zainichi,” (staying in Japan) the term encapsulating a narrow vision of Japanese nationality. Sugihara mitigates an experience of otherness in ethnically homogeneous school environments: a Chongryon (North-Korean affiliated) junior high school and a Japanese high school. The characteristically violent relationship with his second-generation zainichi father compounds his struggles with societal discrimination. Meanwhile, Sugihara meets and becomes enamored with Sakurai (Ko Shibasaki), a Japanese girl. Upon revealing his ethnic identity, she rejects him. Six months later, Sakurai overcomes her internalized prejudice; the film ends with the two reunited.

GO’s happy ending signifies a consummation of self-acceptance––Sugihara rejects the label zainichi, claiming instead a generalized non-Japanese Other: “I’m neither zainichi or alien. I’m ME. No, I’ll give up on being me. I’m a fucking question mark. A BIG unknown. That scary? Fucking say something! Goddamn it! Don’t like it? I don’t give a shit!” Yet despite Sugihara’s supposed self-empowerment, the film betrays an undercurrent of conservatism. Does the conjunction of self-acceptance and romantic reconciliation necessitate erasure of diasporic-specificity? What does the amalgamation of references to non-Japanese cultures reveal about Sugihara and the film’s understanding of national identity? Does it really matter “what’s in a name?”

A quote taken from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet acts as the film’s ethos: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name, would smell as sweet.” Spoken by Juliet, the quote expresses a boundaryless love which transcends the specificities of family name. The quote foregrounds GO, shown in an intertitle at the film’s opening. It then recurs in the diegesis: Sugihara’s close friend Jong-il, also zainichi, gives him a copy of Romeo and Juliet. After Jong-il’s untimely death, Sugihara attends a rakugo performance and sits in an empty audience, crying over the book––open to the page where Jong-il had circled Juliet’s quote. The transplantation of this star-crossed lovers ideology to Sugihara’s selfhood perplexes. Sakurai accepts Sugihara on the conditional lack of specific non-Japanese-ness. She tells him: “When you stared at me, I got the shivers. It no longer matters to me who you are. Now I know. From the first moment I saw you, I knew (emphasis added).” Yet her ethnicity-blind acceptance comes only after an ethnicity-conditional rejection. Sugihara’s name did matter, so much so that she tells him that “having [him] inside makes [her]…scared.”

Sakurai’s rejection, horrid in its direct correlation of ethnicity and bodily disgust, contradicts the supposed irrelevance of Sugihara’s “name.” Through this lens, it is precisely Sugihara’s claim of a liminal identity––separate from Korean diaspora––that allows Sakurai to accept him. Ichiro Kuraishi writes:

“Her newly asserted logic of acceptance is therefore based not on the acceptance, endorsement, or understanding that Sugihara is Korean, but on the erasure or even denial of any ethnic identity. This acceptance, moreover, is asymmetrical. Sakurai’s identity is never questioned: as a member of the Japanese majority, Sakurai has no need to try to be accepted. Only zainichi need to be accepted—by the Japanese, and apparently only through erasure (118, emphasis added).”

In writing about the novel GO, the film’s source material, David S. Roh provides a counter-argument to Kuraishi: “I am skeptical of Kuraishi’s argument that Sugihara’s polemic betrays an ‘antiethnic’ message, for Sugihara never considers sublimation to pass as Japanese.” Roh points to the multitude of pop-culture references Sugihara identifies with, suggesting that he mediates a unique space in which he can articulate his selfhood.

In addition to Shakespeare, Sugihara’s selfhood is presented through a variety of non-Japanese pop cultures. Firstly, Sugihara’s style of violence has clear connections to Hong Kong cinema (Lo, 137). When Sugihara reveals his Korean name to Sakurai, he says: “My name is Lee Jong-ho. Like Bruce Lee. A totally foreign name. I was scared to tell you.” GO mirrors Sugihara with Bruce Lee, “the ultimate transcultural Asian masculine idea (Pang, 165).”  In the film’s first action-choreography, Sugihara soars in the air, delivering flying kicks to his victims––an image iconicized by Bruce Lee. Sugihara’s identification with Lee––in style and name––says something about Japan’s strictly mono-ethnic vision of itself. But it may also reveal a twinge of the film’s anti-ethnic sentiment.

As in many recent zainichi films, GO “[makes] a link between violence and Korean ethnicity.” Sugihara’s father Hideyoshi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a former boxer, resorts to borderline-gory outburst of violence to discipline his son. At his Chongryon school, Mr. Kim (Sansei Shiomi) repeatedly slaps Sugihara after learning of his plans to attend a Japanese school. This essentialized “Korean” core of violence, in addition to the Hong-Kong martial arts imagery––undoubtedly influenced by an “Orientalist imagination”––reaffirms an understanding of Japanese nationhood as mono-ethnic (Lo, 136). Put shortly, as it asserts Japanese nationhood, it also constructs a generalized Other: an amalgamation of Asian (and Western) cultures. As David S. Roh argues, Sugihara naturally––or perhaps necessarily––identifies with this Other. There is simply no mode of Korean or Japanese self-hood that reflects his experience of the liminal. But Sugihara’s claim to a rootless existence cannot be entirely separated from an erasure of his diasporic specificity. Sugihara might not assert a desire to “pass” as Japanese, but his quick acceptance of Sakurai’s ethnicity-blind love signals the issues with his Shakespearean ethos.

Paving an individualistic existence, Sugihara tells his father (in Spanish, no less): “I am grass without roots.” Sakurai’s acceptance of him concurs: she accepts him in a space of generalized otherness, where his roots don’t need specificity. The casting expresses the same ethnicity-blindness––all but one of the zainichi characters are played by non-zainichi actors. Without his name, Sugihara may smell just as sweet. But flowers don’t grow without roots.

Sources/Further Readings

David S. Roh. “Kaneshiro Kazuki’s GO and the American Racializing of Zainichi Koreans.” Verge: Studies in Global Asias, vol. 2, no. 2, 2016., pp. 163-187. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/vergstudglobasia.2.2.0163. Accessed March 4, 2021.

Kuraishi, Ichiro. “Pacchigi! and Go: Representing Zainichi in Recent Cinema.” Diaspora without Homeland: Being Korean in Japan, edited by Sonia Ryang and John Lie, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2009, pp.107-120. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnbnc.8. Accessed March 4, 2021.

Lo, Kwai-Cheung. “There Is No Such Thing as Asia: Racial Particularities in the ‘Asian’ Films of Hong Kong and Japan.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 17, no. 1, 2005, pp. 133–158. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41490935. Accessed 4 Mar. 2021.

Pang, Laikwan. “New Asian Cinema and Its Circulation of Violence.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 17, no. 1, 2005, pp. 159–187. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41490936. Accessed 4 Mar. 2021.