“Yasukuni” director Li Ying shares his thoughts with John Junkerman and David McNeill on the contentious Tokyo shrine, the motivation behind the movie, and his reaction to the furor in Japan over the documentary’s release.

On the reaction to his movie in Japan:

Before the movie was released I visited each theater and talked to the managers. Some magazines had already started discussing the movie so we knew that there would be some protests. There was a very strong sense among everyone then of wanting to put this movie out and challenge the protesters. So why have they all suddenly changed their minds? I can only conclude that pressure was exerted behind the scenes.

How the idea for “Yasukuni” was born:

I had wanted to make a film about Nanking (the Nanjing Massacre). In speaking with Japanese, of course there is always a gap in the perception of history. And the gap surrounding Nanking is the widest. So I was interested in Nanking and in 1997 I attended a symposium at Kudan Kaikan (in Tokyo) on the 60th anniversary of Nanking.

The first event of the symposium was the screening of a documentary about Nanking. It was a propaganda film produced by the Japanese military, and of course it didn’t touch on the massacre at all. There was a scene of the formal ceremony of the Japanese military entering the city. And something happened that I couldn’t believe. The audience applauded, very loudly. It was a shock. It left me shaking. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was standing on a battlefield. It was a shock to experience such a scene, here in Japan so many years after the war. That people still feel a sense of honor and pride toward such a scene, it’s unthinkable.

This is not simply a typical rightwing problem. This far surpassed what I understood to be the right wing. It’s a fancy venue, more than a thousand people, all wearing suits and ties, University of Tokyo professors, members of the “Atarashii Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai” (the Japanese Society for Textbook Reform). There are those who have researched the massacre, and there are those who deny it. There were deniers participating in the symposium. And what do they emphasize? They deny the testimony of those who were in Nanking, and argue that the massacre never happened. There’s no possibility of discussing it with them.

At the symposium, the daughter of one of the officers who engaged in the “100 head-cutting” contest appealed for the restoration of her father’s honor, that he be treated not as a war criminal but as a heroic soul in Yasukuni. So that made me wonder what Yasukuni symbolized, this sacred space that granted heroic status. This was an issue that had more of a sense of reality. Nanking is a historical problem, but to take up an issue that carries reality, you need to film in Japan, and that meant filming Yasukuni, to bring the issue into present reality. Yasukuni feels very real to me.

So I began filming then and continued for 10 years. I didn’t know what kind of film it would turn out to be. I decided I would just film every time I went to Yasukuni. As I filmed I would study and learn more, and figure it out. That’s very time-consuming, not knowing what kind of film it will turn out to be. But I had a sense that it raised very real issues.

Did people try to prevent you from filming?

My camera was taken away, videotape was taken, I was told to erase the tapes. These were rightwingers. You could never make this film shooting the ordinary way. I think that’s why no Japanese has ever made a film like this. They would follow the ordinary process of applying for press passes and permission, but that’s impossible. All you can do is shoot a bit at a time. When it was possible, I applied for permission. But there are places that wouldn’t be permitted, and you either have to go ahead and film there, or give up.

This is one of the issues that’s being raised in criticism of the film.

I did get permission to film on Aug. 15 (the anniversary of Japan’s surrender). I gave my name card to the people in charge at Yasukuni. So I had permission to film on Aug. 15. In the beginning, I had no idea of what kind of film I would make, so I shot like a tourist. There are a lot of tourists who shoot video at Yasukuni. But when I understood there were things I needed to shoot, I got permission. The people in charge know who I am. I never shot with a concealed camera. I didn’t use a long lens.

Was making a film about Yasukuni something of a provocation?

It was more a conditioned response, not a provocation. It was a biological response. I was provoked, and I responded.

I often say, this is a sequela, the aftereffect of the war. Not just World War II, not just the war with China, but it’s the aftereffect of all the wars Japan has fought since the Meiji period. Yasukuni Shrine is intricately tied to Japan’s modern history. It was built by the Meiji Emperor, it’s the Emperor’s shrine. So it is these contradictions, these aftereffects of war that can be seen on the stage of Yasukuni. So, when I go inside there, I feel like I too am suffering from a disease. I contracted the disease at the Nanking symposium, and I’ve been suffering from it ever since. I’m not a doctor, who can take a look at someone’s disease. I’m suffering from the disease as well. So it’s not a provocation, but a conditioned response. I’m responding by instinct.

I had a dialogue once with Shunya Ito, the director of “Pride.” We’re both members of the Directors Guild of Japan, and Ito has always been very cordial and friendly toward me. A Japanese gentleman. But around that same time, 1997, he made the film called “Pride.” That was a shock as well.

When it comes to history, there’s a gap that’s so large. It’s a film about the “pride” of Hideki Tojo, his defiance of the Tokyo war crimes trial, arguing that the war was fought in Japan’s self-defense. We had a special meeting of the international committee of the guild and I engaged in a three-hour discussion with Ito. And I thought at the time that it was pointless to debate, that what I needed to do was respond with a film of my own. So, it’s matter of conditioned response. The other side is provocative, I’m just responding by instinct.

So you don’t consider this film to be anti-Japanese?

Of course not. What’s wrong with curing an illness, the aftereffects of war? The point is to live together in a healthy atmosphere, and that would work in Japan’s favor as well. People don’t want to recognize their illness, they don’t want to think about it, look at it. “Japan is beautiful. How can you say it is sick?” But if you watch the film, you’ll see that diseased cells are living within the space of Yasukuni. And that’s dangerous. It could lead to heart disease, or to brain disease. But what’s really serious about this disease is that it comes not from internal organs but from the soul. So it is a psychological disorder, a disease of the spirit.

That I haven’t been able to leave this issue alone for the last 10 years means that I too am suffering from psychological disease. I don’t really want to make such a difficult film, it’s only going to cause problems, so I must be sick to do it. The point is to look directly at the disease.

I’ve been observing for 10 years, and this is the result. The film asks the question: What is the meaning of the spirit of Yasukuni? That’s all. Each viewer can come up with his or her own answer. This has to be good for Japan. It’s an opportunity, an opportunity to get well. That’s good for Japan, not anti-Japanese.

To suggest that the film is anti-Japanese suggests that Yasukuni symbolizes all of Japan. That’s a mistake to begin with. It’s one face of Japan, the face of Japan when it’s suffering from disease. That’s not all of Japan. Japan has many beautiful faces. But this face must not be ignored. It must be confronted. Many Japanese don’t know about Yasukuni, they feel it has nothing to do with them. But that’s wrong. It needs to be recognized, looked at and thought about, and the film provides that opportunity. So it’s not anti-Japanese. It’s my love letter to Japan, in that sense. I live in Japan. How could something that is anti-Japanese be good for me, personally? This love letter may be hard to watch, but that’s the form my love takes. There are many forms of love. There’s one that declares that everything is wonderful, but that’s not my way. This is my expression of love.

But there are those who consider it a taboo to address this.

That’s because it is questioning the spirit, and so the spiritual pain comes out, and there is resistance. I’m not stating a conclusion, we don’t use any narration. The space itself raises the questions, the atmosphere of the place. My theme is the space that is Yasukuni. The space and the spirit. It’s the spirit of Yasukuni that I’m trying to capture. So you need a variety of perspectives to see the space. It’s not one-sided. But no one has looked at that space, so seeing it may be a shock, it may be unpleasant, but it’s reality.

What is the spirit of Yasukuni?

In the shrine’s own doctrine, the spirit is the sword. It is the object of worship. All of the spirits of the dead are embodied in that sword. So that’s the symbol of Yasukuni. The film depicts symbolic meaning. Everyone who appears in the film, every scene, and the sword itself, all are symbols. I am using the doctrine of Yasukuni to make a film: the world of symbols. The sword is the spirit, but what meaning does that spirit have? That’s the question the film raises. Is it the samurai spirit? The Yamoto spirit? An entirely beautiful spirit?

But it is a spirit that doesn’t allow for reflection.

They are all tools. The sword is a tool. Yasukuni itself is no more than a building. It’s a tool. What meaning do people invest in those tools? How they are used changes their effect entirely. So it always returns to people. How do people use these tools, how do they see them? How do they interact with the tools? People are weak, so the government uses the tools to manipulate people.

There are many war memorials in the world, and everyone who visits them brings their own meaning to them. But Yasukuni does not allow that freedom. The compulsory nature of Yasukuni is the key problem, it seems to me.

It began as a symbol of the state. Under the Emperor, it was part of a political religion. It was a military facility, the head priest was a general in the army, for example. It was run by the military. During the war, it had a status that surpassed all religion, it represented the morality of the Japanese people. That was the nature of state Shinto. State Shinto had the compulsory power of the state as the image of the nation.

The problem comes after the war, when state Shinto was disestablished, and separation of religion and the state was adopted. Yasukuni became an independent religious institution. But is it really independent? Is it really simply a religious shrine? There are many contradictions there.

For example, in the film, there’s the story of the Buddhist priest, Sugawara Ryuken. The question he asks is: If Yasukuni is an independent religious institution, how did it obtain that information needed to enshrine his father? He was enshrined, as a heroic spirit, after the war. How could they accomplish that? His father was a Buddhist. Why does a Buddhist have to be enshrined in a Shinto shrine? That’s a contradiction. Even after the war, there is no separation between Yasukuni and the government. The enshrinement rolls are all prepared on the basis of information that comes from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. That’s true of the Class-A war criminals too. All of that information came from the government. So the government is still using Yasukuni.

The Japanese government employs a double standard. With regard to international society, it recognizes the verdicts of the war crimes trials, it acknowledges the existence of war criminals. But domestically, it uses Yasukuni to honor them, and give them the status of heroic souls, to express gratitude and respect. This is very Japanese, a different face at home and abroad. And this double standard has created the contradictory nature of Yasukuni over these decades. So there are people with different stances and the confrontations among them are repeated.

It also makes Yasukuni very indefinite. To young people, it’s perplexing, and they don’t want to have anything to do with it. And this connects, of course, to the larger question of the Japanese war responsibility throughout the postwar period. It is the matter of collective memory, and that’s where the coercion comes into play. In the film, everyone is part of a collective, it has nothing to do with the individual. They have collective memory, they are in a collective context, collective currents and relationships. Yasukuni is a powerful collective symbol, a powerful symbol of collective memory. It is a symbol of Japan as a “kyodotai,” a communal society. To live collectively, with gratitude to the dead. It’s that kind of symbol. Yasukuni is not a simple symbol of militarism, it’s not simply a matter of whether the prime minister will worship there or not. It is connected to the collective memories that stretch back to the beginning of Meiji, when Japan began to walk the path of a modern state, with pride and honor.

How do you think the film will be seen in China?

This film is a Japanese-Chinese coproduction, with producers from the Beijing Film Academy and a Chinese film company. So it will be released in China. And that’s important, because it depicts sides of Yasukuni that have never been shown before.

But there is a chance it will lead to increased anti-Japanese sentiment.

That’s possible, but until now Yasukuni has been used for political purposes, with a nationalist spirit on both sides. But this film shows many aspects of Yasukuni, so it may have the effect of diminishing the nationalist response. It provides the opportunity to engage the subject calmly, to watch, feel, study, and relate to it. An opportunity to communicate not in a political, nationalistic way, but in a cultural way.

There are many appealing characters in the film, starting with Kariya-san, the swordsmith, and some of the ordinary people who worship at the shrine.

The spirit of the artisan is a central aspect of the Japanese character. There’s a concentration on the work in front of one. But there is also a tendency to not think about what is done with the product of one’s labor, and that’s problematic. That can be used by the state again, as it was during the war. Soldiers went to war doing a job, they didn’t go to war as “devils.” They were all ordinary people, and it was their job. Then they were changed. They may have engaged in atrocities, but it was war, so it’s forgivable. Is that kind of thinking acceptable? The film poses that question to the Japanese people.

The desire to remember the war dead is the same throughout the world. When I showed the film at the Berlin Film Festival, the response was interesting. There are many war dead in Germany, and they had families who have their grief and want to commemorate the dead. But the Germans first built a memorial to the Jews. There is no facility in Germany commemorating the German war dead. Why is that?

The founder of the International Forum of New Cinema at the Berlin festival, Ulrich Gregor, has an interesting take on this. He argues that the difference between Germany and Japan is that Germany was lucky to have gotten rid of its emperor after World War I. For Japan, the symbol of the state has remained the same, before, during and after the war. The emperor has lost his authority, he’s made a declaration of his humanity, but he remains the symbol of the state. That’s the source of the difficulty and complexity of the problem. Yasukuni Shrine is the Emperor’s shrine. The film calls that into question. And that’s the reason it has generated an intense response.

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