[Interview] Lee Il-ha Hopes His Work Influences Young Japanese

Director Lee Il-ha was born in Korea and has lived in Japan since 2000. Lee has worked with Japanese and Korean broadcasters such as NHK and MBC. Lee's first feature film", A Crybaby Boxing Club", tells the story of high school boxers' growing pain at a Korean-Japanese minority school in Tokyo. The film was chosen for the opening film of 2014 DMZ International Documentary Festival. With his new film, "Counters", director Lee questions the meaning of freedom and justice in the era of far-right conservatism.

On the occasion of "Counters" (festival entry) screening at the 17th New York Asian Film Festival, we speak with him about his career, the actual Counters, racism, prejudice and the right-wing oriented politics in Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine, and many other topics.

You have worked for Japanese and Korean broadcasters such as NHK and MBC. Can you tell us about these experiences and the path that led you to directing documentaries?

I not only majored in documentary, but also I am interested in social issues, and that led me to directing documentaries, not those broadcasters.

Why did you decide to shoot a documentary about the Counters? How was the experience of spending time with the Counters? Can you give us some more details about Takahashi? And what about Sakurai?

I am Korean but I lived in Japan for 18 years. When I encountered a hate speech by chance, I was shocked. That experience made me shoot the documentaries "Counters" and "Crybaby".

Counters is a group of people who gather on twitter and fight for justice. They do not have any specific organization, some members do not even know each other's names.

Although Tokyo is a big city and the citizens are very individual, Otokogumi is an exceptionally bonding organization. I can feel their close human relationship and enthusiasm, and even if they have their own jobs, they act very passionately. I was impressed a lot and I respect them.

Takahashi, as I described him on the movie, he came from the "Bad Guys". There is no gray zone for him, only rights or wrongs. He is quite an innocent man, his motto is doing his best every single moment. Even when he goes protesting he dresses up in imperfectly.

Sakurai used to be a quiet and diligent person. He began his career as an internet commentator, but as he got popular, he organized a hate group. Sakurai not only knows a lot about Korea because of his studying, but also he is excellent in agitation, so he has lots of followers. When I interviewed him, I felt he is a just natural man; he seemed to realize the contradiction on his opinion. He, however, has to be more malicious, to stir up people purposefully. The more malicious , the more popular he gets.

His book is one of the best-selling books which focuses on exclusionism. It shows that the Japanese society has widely spread exclusionism, especially for Asians. It is connected to East Asian history. Japanese imperialism wiped out whole Asian countries under the pretext of unifying Asian savage countries, which was the point of view for the Japanese, but not for western countries.

How much time did you spent shooting this documentary and how much time editing?

The preproduction took 6 months, 3 years to shoot, and 6 months to edit

I found Noh Young-rae's music exceptional. Can you give us some details about your cooperation with him?

Noh Young-rae is a friend of mine and is also with me in a rock band. I worked with him in my last film as well. These days, he is working on hip-pop music production.

The documentary also features some video game like graphics. Why did you decide to include these in the film?

Counters' activity itself is very casual. They are trying to show that they are superior to hate groups. They use this advantage of the concept to attract young people, since they think they are cooler than hate groups.

 I used this concept in the movie.

Even though the theme is serious and heavy, I would like to make the movie punky. The reality itself is serious, but I do not want the audience to feel depressed. Even if the idea had some counterproductive parts in pitching, I kept on my own plan. I hope to show my film to young Japanese generations who are relatively right-headed due to the influence of the internet.

What is the situation with the racist demonstration after the law the Counters struggled for was voted? Have things become better? In general, what does the majority of Japanese think of the Zainichi and other immigrants?

The law has no penalty provisions. It means that even though a violation of the law has occured, nobody can be punished. Police can't block the racist demonstrations in reality. The following day, after the law was enacted, police simply had to monitor the hate speech. However, there were a lot of citizens who stopped the hate speech.  

There is a culture, Honetatemae, which means, "Japanese don't show their feelings". Even though Japanese do not show their uncomfortable feelings to Zainichi,  Zainichi can feel discrimination in the society. Zainichies were born and grew up in Japan, so they almost seem like Japanese before they reveal their identities. However, after coming out, they have to face discrimination in job employment, social status and so on.

Japanese are not so positive towards immigrants as well. It's well known that in Okinawa, Hokkido indigenous people are still treated unfairly, those terms themselves are part of the discrimination as well as Zosenzing.

Why do you think there are so many racists in Japan and in the world? Are governments, and in this particular case, Shinjo Abe responsible for these sentiments?

Actually,  there are not that many racists in Japan, and the number of Zaitokukai is about 15,000. Japanese consider themselves as a homogeneous nation due to being an island country.

Shinjo Abe is a prime minister who is deeply rooted in the extreme right wing party and he has been ruling for many years. He has been using these sentiments for politics. Back in Japanese history, once the opposition party took power, but it quickly collapsed after the effects of disasters like tsunami and earthquakes. And actually the opossition party itself was originally rooted in the right-wing side. So you can guess if he is responsible for them or not.

What is your opinion of the Yasukuni shrine and the tension that brings between the Japanese and their neighboring countries?

China and Korea have been expressing strong dissatisfaction whenever a Japanese Prime Minister visits the Yasukuni shrine. Yasukuni shrine is where war criminals are buried. It is a political display about nostalgia for Japanese imperialism when the Japanese Prime Minister visits  the Shrine. The neighboring countries' response to this political display is quite natural, and Japan also takes advantage of these responses, politically. Japanese politicians used it as a means of gathering the right wing.

Do you think cinema can make a change in this matters?

I want to give people an opportunity to reconsider after watching this movie. Many people do not know what is happening right now in Japan. Therefore, I want to let them know the fact, and then the change of his mindset is up to the individual.

What is your opinion of the Korean film industry at the moment and how about the documentary scene?

Creativity is dying in the mainstream. As the film industry grows, it is becoming more systemized. Even though many unique creators have sprung up in the indie industry, most viewers do not have many opportunities to watch indie movies. One of the problems is the connection between the movie theaters' monopoly and distribution, because they focus on profitability. Not only creativity, but also diversity is dying. I think movie professionals should make efforts to support creativity and diversity. Otherwise, the whole movie industry will be gone in the end.

Which are your favorite filmmakers?

Park Chan-wook, Na Hong-jin and Jung Yoon-suk..

Can you give us some details about your future projects?

Yemeni refugees entered Jeju recently. Refugee issues have caused an uproar in Korean society. Many people are expressing some hatred towards the refugees. Therefore, I'm planning a documentary on the issue of refugees in Jeju. My previous work was a filming about a Zainichi School in Tokyo.

Right now, I am filming a music artist who is challenging the taboos, which is another project I work on.


Interview by Panos Kotzathanasis


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