Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Nate Hood on the vitally important COUNTERS (2018) NYAFF 2018

For many Westerners whose diet of Japanese media consists of little more than bubbly anime and classic samurai movies, the stark realities of the country's racist, xenophobic treatment of minorities might come as a shock. To them, footage of literal Japanese schoolgirls walking in step with masked adults waving Nazi banners and Rising Sun Flags through Korean-Japanese neighborhoods while chanting that they'll rape and murder everyone there might seem ripped from a dystopian alternate reality. But it and many more harrowing examples of re-nascent Japanese nationalism lurk in Lee Il-ha's essential documentary COUNTERS, a punk rock yet steely-eyed look at the growing hate speech movement and the valiant counter-movement known as the "Counters" who disrupt their rallies.

The film begins with the sobering statistic that in March 2016 alone, 329 racism demonstrations were organized in Japan, many of which targeted Korean businesses, neighborhoods, and elementary schools. Many of these were organized by the Zaitokukai, a nationalist hate group founded by Makoto Sakurai, a virulently racist wannabe-demagogue and buffoon who insists that discrimination is crucial to humanity's evolution and that Japan can only be saved from ethnic decline by the mass deportation and/or extermination of their Korean immigrant population. The Counters, on the other hand, peacefully fight their rallies with counter-rallies, petition drives, and a sustained legal movement to change Japan's free speech laws which protect and galvanize cretins like Sakurai.

Anyone familiar with the current Civil Rights movement in the States will notice many unnerving similarities between their treatment by the police and media with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, particularly how news networks sidestep addressing the growing wave of hate crimes in favor of demonizing the handful of Counters arrested for disorderly conduct. Additionally, much like how social media proved instrumental in the founding of American neo-Nazis, incels, and antifa, both the Zaitokukai and the Counters were only able to organize thanks to online message boards and twitter. Again and again we watch the two groups clash, the cowardly Sakurai pleading with cops to disperse the Counters and the stalwart Counters harassing and out-protesting the Zaitokukai despite their growing numbers. But the Counters are indefatigable.

Many members are interviewed from all different walks of socioeconomic life, but few loom larger than Mr. Takashi, an ex-yakuza gangster his followers and admirers compare to feudal ronin fighting for the dispossessed. Loud, abrasive, and frankly obnoxious, he nonetheless matches a fiery desire for justice with an uncanny ability to muster manpower and funding for protests. He's the perfect emblem for modern social justice movements--openly confrontational abd ruthlessly effective, a perfect social media icon and rabblerouser.

And the Counters need the help; although the film ends with them successfully petitioning the government to change the free speech laws to outlaw hate speech, it ends with a grim warning. Emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, Sakurai ends the documentary running for mayor of Tokyo under a "Japan First" slogan. He came in fifth of twenty-one candidates and is currently being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a potential ally of nativist Ameican hate groups. For American audiences, this song sounds much, much too familiar.

Rating: 8/10

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