Li Ying’s “Yasukuni” – 2008 NYAFF & Japan Cuts Review

Li Ying’s extraordinary documentary “Yasukuni” examines one of the most politically contentious spots of land in Japan: the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in central Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s fallen soldiers during World War II. To be more accurate, it is the final resting place of some of the most notorious war criminals of the Pacific War.

In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi caused a major international scandal by going to pay his respects at the shrine. This act gave official imprimatur to a site that, while celebrated and venerated by many, for many others (Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Okinawan) is a symbol of Japan’s war of oppression and subjugation of the Asian continent, akin to placing a Nazi memorial in the middle of Israel. Koizumi justified his actions, as we see in the film, by claiming that it was “a matter of freedom of belief.”

The protestors who interrupt his speeches at the anniversary event are set upon by some of the crowd in a disturbingly violent confrontation, as they are chased away and beaten by members of the angry mob. Li’s chaotic camera framing, as it does in much of the film, puts the viewer in the center of the action, giving us a visceral sense of the physical dangers of dissent in this space. This is history as blood sport.

What is most remarkable about Li’s film is his approach to this material. As a Chinese, he clearly has strong feelings about the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the war. However, he eschews a Michael Moore-type, in-your-face confrontational approach, which proves to be a wise strategy. Li structures the film as a series of mini-plays that illustrate what this shrine means to people at all points of the political spectrum. There are those who support Koizumi’s praying at the shrine and see it as simply a benign war memorial. There is also Chiwas Ari, a Taiwanese woman who speaks powerfully to the role that those countries colonized by Japan played in the war. (Colonial subjects were forced to fight on Japan’s side and some of them are enshrined in Yasukuni along with native Japanese.) Her impassioned plea for the return of her father’s remains is an incredibly moving virtual aria. For comic relief, we have the clueless American whose ham-fisted attempt to support Koizumi, combined with the stunningly boneheaded idea to wave a big American flag in the middle of the shrine, sends this quixotic figure packing by an angry crowd.

Tucked away from all the fighting is Naoji Kariya, the last living Yasukuni sword-maker still practicing his craft in isolation. The mythology of Yasukuni lies in the sword, which is the spiritual symbol of the shrine. Li constantly prods him for memories of the war, but whatever memories Kariya has remain hidden inside him and hidden from us. Kariya is a curious figure – a metaphor, perhaps, for the historical memory of Japan. He seems unwilling to confront the past, yet is unable to move forward, stuck in a limbo where everything is reduced to rote, refined physical movement and craft divorced from meaning. The swords he has made over the years may have been used to commit some of the worst atrocities visited by Japanese soldiers upon their victims, one example being the chilling account of a beheading competition involving two soldiers who were executed, and later enshrined, at Yasukuni. But Kariya willfully separates himself from this reality, and his stoic silence in response to Li’s queries represents an unsettling side to vaunted notions of Japanese propriety.

The film’s concluding montage steps away from the warring factions, and provides evidence from the historical record that demonstrates the truth behind propaganda – such as that peddled by the shrine’s war museum – and the attempts to whitewash history by people like the petitioners who “refute” the 1937 Nanking massacre, which they claim is a fiction created by aggrieved Chinese. The response to this film by Japan’s ultra right-wing factions all but demands its own follow-up feature.

Harassment and death threats directed toward Li and his producers, along with relentless pressure from conservatives, caused the film’s planned Tokyo release this past April to be cancelled. Ten years in the making, “Yasukuni” is more than simply a film. Li puts his considerable journalistic and artistic skills in the service of the best use of the power of images: to illuminate, to enlighten, to cut through self-serving rhetoric and propaganda, and to reveal unadorned truth.

“Yasukuni” screens at Japan Society on July 5 and July 10 as part of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film. For ticket information, go to the Japan Society Web site.