A binational prayer for reconciliation

by Masako Tsubuku

If any one programming section of the Pusan International Film Festival best represents its dedication to exploring every avenue of filmmaking, it’s Wide Angle. This year, the section included more than 80 short subjects, documentaries and animated films. Seven of the feature-length Korean documentaries this year had connections to Japan. “Erotic Chaos Boy,” for example, charted director Choi Jin Sung’s own love affair with a Japanese woman who is also a documentary filmmaker. “NoGaDa” explored the way construction workers in both Japan and Korea are exploited.

“Annyong Sayonara,” this year’s cowinner of the Woonpa Fund award for best South Korean documentary, was in fact a joint Korean-Japanese production. Co-directed by veteran documentarist Kim Tae Il and Japanese filmmaker Kumiko Kato, the film looks at Yasukuni Shrine through the experiences of Lee Hee Ja, a 62-year-old Korean woman trying to remove her father’s name from the list of soldiers enshrined there, and Masaki Furukawa, a Kobe municipal employee who helps Koreans bring lawsuits against the Japanese government.

“In Korea, Yasukuni is a symbol of evil,” Kato says in her Tokyo office, having just returned from PIFF and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, where the movie was also screened. “But they don’t really know what it is. We wanted to show them that it’s a controversial subject in Japan and that Japanese hold various opinions, that there are some who are working for peace.” She adds that some supporters felt this angle might be misleading since “Japanese society is actually leaning rightward.”

Consequently, the movie may be more educational for Japanese. “Most Japanese don’t even know what ‘enshrinement’ means,” Kato says. “And they don’t know that the names of Taiwanese and Korean soldiers [who fought for Japan in World War II because they were colonial subjects] are enshrined in Yasukuni. We want them to understand how those names ended up there.”

By understanding the process, says Kato, a viewer can see how Yasukuni is not a shrine for peace, as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi claims.

Lee is suing the Japanese government so that her father’s name may be removed from the shrine. Kato points out that it is mostly a symbolic suit, because even if Lee wins, the government has no authority over a religious institution like Yasukuni, despite the fact that it was the government who gave the list of names to the shrine in the first place. Lee has asked the shrine several times to remove her father’s name, but has always been told it’s impossible. In the most powerful scene, she is shown at a special graveyard for Koreans who died overseas. There is a stone for her father, but no name will be inscribed on it until she retrieves her father’s name from Yasukuni.

While “Annyong Sayonara” does have an agenda, Kim wants the movie to be forward-looking. The word “annyong” means “hello” and is meant to welcome a future of Japan-Korea reconciliation. “Sayonara” means “goodbye” to the contentious past represented by Yasukuni.

As a Korean production, the filmmakers had both advantages and disadvantages. The footage of Koizumi and other Japanese leaders visiting the shrine, set to martial music, is quite impressive — and it was obtained from a South Korea TV company. “In Japan, you can’t buy news footage,” Kato explains. “Which means there’s no way an independent Japanese production company can obtain that kind of footage.”

Because he didn’t think Yasukuni would grant permission, Kim used a hidden camera to film part of the shrine’s infamous war museum, which glorifies Japan’s past imperialist adventures. He also caught the shrine’s priests listening to people who demanded their relatives’ names be removed. “They told us not to film,” Kato explains. “But there were a lot of cameras that day and they couldn’t control all of us. We had three, and there were two or three from Taiwan.”

Thanks to Kim’s high profile as a director, “Annyong Sayonara” is slated to open at seven theaters throughout South Korea in December, but in Japan there is no general release in the works.

Kato says she learned a lot working with Kim, but that the project had its difficulties. “I followed his lead. If I realized something might be difficult for Japanese audiences, I’d discuss it with him.” She adds, “Some people even suggested we produce a making-of documentary, which might be more interesting, but we didn’t have enough money.”