LONDON – With Angelina Jolie’s film “Unbroken” about Japan’s brutal treatment of prisoners during World War II being released this month, Chinese filmmaker Li Ying figures his 2007 anti-militarist documentary “Yasukuni” has only gained in relevance.
The film, which had its British premiere last week, focuses on Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes more than 2 million Japanese war dead, as well war criminals convicted after the war of inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.
Visits to the Shinto shrine by Japanese prime ministers, including Shinzo Abe, have infuriated China and South Korea, which say Japan has never properly apologized for the invasion and wartime occupation of its neighboring territories.
Li’s film has many facets but a central one is a plea against militarism — which he feels Jolie’s film, focusing on the punishing treatment of the American Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini in a POW camp, may help to reinforce.
“I think the discussion around Yasukuni has been there for a long time and the discussion over war has been for even longer,” Li told Reuters in an interview, translated from Chinese.
Li’s film sparked controversy when it was shown in Japan in 2008, with some Tokyo cinemas dropping plans to screen it, but declining to say why.
He rejects the suggestion that the documentary is anti-Japanese propaganda, noting that some of the funding for the film that took him 10 years to make came from the Japan’s culture ministry.
“A propaganda kind of film pushes (people) to accept an opinion, but my documentary is an invitation to think on their own about what’s shown in the film,” he said.
Some of what is shown is hard to watch. Li films a 90-year-old swordsmith forging the last of a style of sword that was made at a workshop at Yasukuni Shrine from 1933 until 1945, and which Japanese officers proudly wore into battle.
Archive shots show that same type of sword being used to behead prisoners.
Li said the swords illustrated the duality of war — the aesthetic beauty of the swords themselves, and the cruel uses to which they are put.
“So I hope the audience won’t be put off by the cruel side of the picture but rather they will remember the cruelty of war,” he said. “If they don’t they will be living in a beautiful bubble.”