‘Yasukuni,” a two-hour documentary about the controversial Shinto shrine in Tokyo, had its world premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival earlier this month. It comes two years after “Annyoung Sayonara,” a feature about a South Korean woman who sued the shrine to have her father’s name removed from its list of dead, premiered at PIFF.

“Annyoung” was a joint South Korea-Japan production that took an anti-Yasukuni stance. “Yasukuni,” slated to open in Japan next spring, offers a more balanced perspective. This may surprise some since its director is Chinese, and China has been vocal in its condemnation of the shrine and Japanese politicians who visit it.

Yasukuni enshrines 2.46 million soldiers who have died in the name of the Japanese Emperor since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, including 12 convicted Class-A war criminals. Its very existence offends those Asian countries who suffered at the hands of the Imperial Japanese forces during World War II, who see it as a holdover from that period and a glorification of Japanese militarism. Supporters of the shrine claim that Yasukuni is a sacred monument to the people who perished defending Japan and is therefore nobody’s business but the Japanese.

Director Li Ying sees it in larger terms. “World War II was a global conflict,” he explains through an interpreter. “And in that regard, Yasukuni has a relevance that goes beyond the concerns of just Japan, China and Korea.”

Li, a compact man with an easygoing manner but an intense gaze, sits in the interview tent at the Sea Cloud Hotel in Pusan the day after the sold-out premiere, which clearly affected the mostly Korean audience who watched it. “My movie is about the way the world looks at war, and how an individual country portrays its own wars. I think it’s even relevant to the war in Iraq.”

Li did not start with this idea, and one of the achievements of the film is that it forces viewers to reassess what they already know about the shrine. His approach is less political than it is spiritual. The documentary revolves around 90-year-old Naoji Kariya, the shrine’s last living sword-maker, who helped forge 8,100 yasukuni-to that were sent into battle during the war.

The Yasukuni Sword is where the spirits of the dead soldiers are said to reside, and it is therefore the physical embodiment of everything the shrine represents. Li makes this explicit, and his frustration in failing to elicit comments from the mild-mannered old man about his role in this process is palpable. “Did you think about how the swords you made were being used?” Li asks in his gentlest Japanese. “Your memories are very valuable.” The camera lingers on Kariya, but he remains silent, clearly uncomfortable. He is simply a craftsman.

“I really wanted the Japanese people I met to understand why I was making this documentary,” Li says. “Most of them found it incomprehensible that a Chinese person wanted to make such a movie. Of course, the Japanese look at the social issues surrounding the shrine much differently than Chinese people do, but I took neither viewpoint.”

Li addresses the shrine as a place and its effect on all who come into contact with it. Much of the footage was shot on Aug. 15, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender. He captures rightwing militarist groups carrying out ritual acts (marching, praying, singing military songs) of respect for the dead. In one harrowing segment, he films a shrine ceremony that is interrupted by two young men who oppose the official visit by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. They are hounded off the grounds by men who shout “Go back to China” and then beat them bloody until police show up. The two men, it turns out, are Japanese.

“I had no idea how varied the opinions were when I started,” Li says. He includes comments from housewives and office workers who say they see no reason why Japanese people shouldn’t pray at Yasukuni for the souls of dead soldiers, then turns it upside-down with a long sequence about an American who stands on the grounds with a sign expressing the exact same sentiments. This man sparks a heated argument between two factions of shrine- supporters, one that is grateful for the American’s gesture and one that feels his very presence is a desecration.

Like the filmmakers of “Annyoung Sayonara,” Li is less interested in war criminals than in the enshrinement of people who it is assumed would have rejected enshrinement. He records a very angry meeting between Yasukuni’s PR representative and a group of aboriginal Taiwanese demanding that the names of their fathers, who were pressed into service by the Imperial Japanese Army, be removed. The shrine says it is impossible.

A Japanese Buddhist priest, meanwhile, explains how the shrine’s philosophy contradicts Buddhist teachings. Yasukuni, he says, “perverts” people’s feelings by claiming that all who died for the Emperor belong to the state.

Though already an established filmmaker working for Chinese national television, Li came to Japan in 1989 “mainly for adventure.”

“I had no grasp of the language, and for three years I moved furniture, washed dishes, cleaned toilets,” he says.

He started filming in 1997. “It took me many years because I only had a small video camera and no crew. It was often difficult to film. Rightwingers would grab my camera and tear the tape out.”

The film, in Japanese with no narration, does not comment directly on the politicization of the shrine. However, Li does make extensive use of archival footage from the war years that shows the ritualistic nature of Japan’s martial culture and the almost matter-of-fact acceptance of death.

The most chilling sequence involves a jaunty wartime song that extols the glories of an infamous beheading contest and urges all Imperial soldiers to “advance (and) prepare to die.”

“Until I did this film, I didn’t understand the role of the Emperor in Japan,” Li says. “Both the rightwing and the leftwing use Yasukuni for their own purposes, but the Emperor complicates everything.” The late Showa Emperor stopped visiting the shrine in the 1970s, and recently it was revealed that he didn’t go back because he objected to the enshrinement of Class-A war criminals in 1978. His son and successor, Emperor Akihito, has never visited Yasukuni, nor has he ever commented on the shrine in any way.

The supporters’ ultimate goal is to create a situation in which the Emperor can pay his respects at Yasukuni, otherwise it has no meaning.

“But I don’t think the real significance of Yasukuni is limited to Japan, or even to Asia,” Li says. “It is something the entire world should think about.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.