Film Review: Yasukuni

A fascinating portrait of the dark side of Japanese society, Ying Li’s film is not so much about Japan’s shrine to its war dead as it is an indictment of Japan’s wartime aggression.

Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni war memorial a half-dozen times during his administration, upsetting diplomatic relations with neighboring South Korea and China. In fact, no Chinese leader would meet with Koizumi for most of his five-year term: Among the millions of souls Shinto Buddhists believe are sheltered at Yasukuni, seven are war criminals convicted of atrocities against Chinese and Korean civilians and POWs. When Koizumi went to Yasukuni in 2006, to mark the 61st anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, international condemnation was swift. Chinese filmmaker Li Ying was there, filming Yasukuni, his documentary about Japanese nationalism.

Yasukuni is fascinating for its portrayal of the dark side of Japan’s national character, but it’s lengthy, and Li’s premise feels contrived: For the filmmaker, Japanese history, culture and religion, as well as the country’s politics of nationalism under Emperor Hirohito, all converge at Yasukuni—or, more accurately, in master sword-maker Naoji Kariya. Kariya’s swords are works of art, ceremonial objects, and weapons of war, and Li suggests the 90-year-old is an iconic figure, emblematic of Japan’s persistent jingoism. The last remaining artisan from the Yasukuni sword-making factory once located on the site of the shrine, Kariya crafted the ceremonial sword within which the Shinto believe reside the souls of the dead soldiers at Yasukuni. During World War II, he and others made the swords which figured prominently in atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers.

The documentary unfolds as Kariya crafts another sword in a workshop not unlike those of his Japanese Classic Period predecessors. Li’s interview with Kariya is interspersed mostly with footage shot in a cinema-vérité style at Yasukuni. A few archival photographs allude to Japan’s war crimes, and there are brief interviews with those who want their relatives’ names removed from the list of honored soldiers. The sequences at Yasukuni provide a snapshot of how visitors feel about the place and, not surprisingly, these subjects resemble people who visit war memorials everywhere in the world. They’re conservative, religious and nationalistic. It is difficult to imagine why the Shinto have inducted war criminals as the honored dead at Yasukuni, and Li’s conclusion, in the end, is what makes his documentary disingenuous.

The filmmaker chooses a seemingly aphasic sword-maker as his expert or “talking head” on the religious or politically conservative side. Kariya, for his part, obviously felt Li had an agenda: He gives up nothing except near the close of the documentary, when he says he feels Koizumi’s visits are justified. Kariya, who grew up under the Shinto monarchy, also offers to play a tape of Hirohito’s speeches. In his mid-40s, Li is not old enough to remember the war, but his father told him stories about the humiliations suffered by ordinary Chinese at the hands of their Japanese occupiers. Yasukuni is an articulation of those sentiments, and the sentiments of all Asians who suffered under Japanese occupation. Significantly, however, the documentary does not explore Japanese attitudes with the aim of revealing in them a universal pattern which transcends the internecine conflicts of the East Asian continent.

Li’s Yasukuni subjects, caught on the fly or in angry confrontations, express strong religious and political opinions about their nationalistic prime minister, as well as the appropriateness of an American who holds up a sign in support of Koizumi. Li does not interview them, but it is clear they’re divided on the subject of whether or not a visit to Yasukuni represents an act of religious devotion or a display of patriotism, or both, but most defend Koizumi.

Interestingly, Yasukuni was funded in part by the Japanese Ministry of Culture. It had its 2008 New York premiere at Japan Cuts, a film festival held by the Japan Society. The festival’s programmer, a Japanese-American, explained in an interview with FJI that what shocks Japanese audiences about Yasukuni is that everyone, on the left and the right, is unwilling to listen to the point of view of their opponents.

In Japan, Yasukuni’s theatrical release has been controversial; conservatives have called on Kariya to denounce the documentary, and some have decried the film for its anti-Japanese sentiments. That’s not unfounded: Li went looking for evidence of Japan’s wartime aggression in contemporary Japanese society and he found it. Yasukuni identifies an unrepentant attitude on the part of Japanese leaders toward war crimes, as well as a cultural insensitivity to the lingering effect of those atrocities—and Japan’s colonialism—on their fellow East Asians. That said, it does not detail the war crimes, or the post-World War II tribunals, nor does it explain Japan’s transition from monarchy to republic under Hirohito; instead of journalistic evidence, Yasukuni stirs an emotional response in audiences already attuned to evidence of neo-colonialism throughout the world. Yasukuni is not, as the title suggests, about the Gordian knot of nationalism represented by war memorials—it’s a blunt instrument aimed directly at the Japanese.