Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Li Ying's "Yasukuni"

Yasukuni. 2007. Written and directed by Li Ying. Produced by Zhang Yuhui, Zhang Huijun, and Hu Yun. Cinematography by Yasuhiro Hotta and Li Ying. Edited by Yuji Oshige and Li Ying. Sound by Takayuki Nakamura.

Li Ying's eye-opening and intensely visceral documentary Yasukuni, a controversial film about the equally controversial shrine commemorating fallen WWII soldiers in the heart of Tokyo, opens today for a one-week run at Film Forum, timed to the August 15th anniversary of Japan's surrender. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at last year's New York Asian and Japan Cuts film festivals.

Li Ying’s extraordinary documentary Yasukuni examines one of the most politically contentious spots of land in Japan: the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in central Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s fallen soldiers during World War II. Or, to be more accurate, it is the final spiritual resting place of some of the most notorious war criminals of the Pacific War. In August 15, 2005, on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Japan’s then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi caused a major international scandal by going to pay his respects at the shrine. This act, in effect, gave official imprimatur to a site that, while celebrated and venerated by many, for many others – Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Okinawan – is a symbol of Japan’s war of oppression and subjugation of the Asian continent. To those and others who oppose the shrine, this would be akin to placing a Nazi memorial in the middle of Israel. Koizumi justified his actions, as we see in the film, by claiming that it was “a matter of freedom of belief.” The speech he gives to the crowd at Yasukuni elaborates on this. He claims that his prayers represent a wish for all wars to end, and a gesture of respect to those who fought bravely and died for their country. However, the glorification of the military on display in the exercises of the shrine worshipers who prance around wearing WWII-era gear, and exhort with megaphones the glory of those soldiers, gives the lie to Kozumi’s claims of pacifist motives.

What is most remarkable about Li’s film is his approach to this material. As a Chinese, he clearly has strong feelings about the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the war. However, he eschews a Michael Moore-type in-your-face confrontational approach, which proves to be a wise strategy. There is no narration; he structures the film as a series of mini-plays, all of which illustrate what this shrine means to people at all points of the political spectrum. There are those who support Koizumi’s praying at the shrine, and see it as simply a benign war memorial. There is also Chiwas Ari, the Taiwanese woman who gives us a very different perspective, speaking powerfully to the role that those countries colonized by Japan played in the war. Colonial subjects were forced to fight on the side of Japan, and some of them are enshrined in Yasukuni along with native Japanese. Chiwas Ari’s impassioned plea for the return of her father’s remains is a virtual aria that is incredibly moving. For comic relief, we have the clueless American whose ham-fisted attempt to support Koizumi, combined with the stunningly boneheaded idea to wave a big American flag in the middle of the shrine, sends this quixotic figure packing by an angry crowd. The protestors who interrupt the speeches at the anniversary event are set upon by some of the crowd in a disturbingly violent confrontation, as they are chased away and beaten by members of the angry mob. Li’s chaotic camera framing, as it does in much of the film, puts the viewer in the center of the action, giving us a visceral sense of the physical dangers of dissent in this space. This is history as blood sport.

Far from the action, tucked away from all the fighting, is Naoji Kariya, the last living Yasukuni sword-maker, still continuing to practice his craft in isolation. The mythology of Yasukuni is bound up in the sword, which is the spiritual symbol of the shrine. Li constantly prods him for memories of the war, and the long, painful silences that follow Li’s questions tell their own story. Whatever memories he has remain hidden away inside him, and hidden from us. He is a curious figure; a metaphor, perhaps, for the historical memory of Japan. He seems unwilling to confront the past, yet is unable to move forward, stuck in a limbo where everything is reduced to rote, refined physical movement, craft divorced from meaning. The swords he has crafted over the years likely were used to commit some of the worst atrocities visited by Japanese soldiers upon their victims, one example of which is the chilling account of a 100-man beheading competition engaged in by two soldiers who were executed and later enshrined at Yasukuni. But Kariya willfully separates himself from this reality, and his stoic silence in response to Li’s queries about the war represents an unsettling side to vaunted notions of Japanese propriety.

The film’s concluding montage steps away from the warring factions and provides evidence from the historical record that demonstrates the truth behind the propaganda peddled by the shrine’s war museum, and the attempts to whitewash history by the petitioners who wish to “refute” the 1937 Nanking massacre, which they claim is a fiction created by aggrieved Chinese. The response to this film by Japan’s ultra right-wing factions all but demands its own follow-up feature. Harassment and death threats directed toward Li and his producers, along with relentless pressure from conservatives, caused the film’s initial Tokyo release to be cancelled in early 2008. (It finally premiered in Tokyo in May 2008, with heavy police security at screenings.)

Ten years in the making, Yasukuni is more than simply a film. Li puts his considerable journalistic and artistic skills in the service of the best use of the power of images: to illuminate, to enlighten, to cut through self-serving rhetoric and propaganda, and reveal unadorned truth.

Click here for more info on Yasukuni and to purchase tickets.

Yasukuni trailer:

Li Ying's press conference following the cancellation of his film's initial Tokyo release:

A report from Al Jazeera English on Yasukuni:

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