Yasukuni Dir. Li Ying

[Film Forum; 2009]

Li Ying’s compelling documentary, Yaksuni, about the titular Shinto shrine in Tokyo, is an important and even-handed examination of one of Japan’s most controversial cultural landmarks. The shrine, established in 1869, is the symbolic resting place for the souls of over two million of Japan’s war dead. Its name is taken from a type of sword that was once standard issue to any officer in the Japanese military, and the souls of the war dead are said to inhabit the Yaksuni made to hang in the halls of the Shrine. The controversy surrounding the shrine stems from the fact that well over a thousand Japanese military men commemorated there are convicted war criminals, 14 of them Class-A War Criminals.

Every year, the Yasukuni shrine becomes the site of demonstrations by those appalled by the veneration of such ostensibly evil men. Many people from Asia and beyond come to Yasukuni to demand a public acknowledgment of the horrible crimes against humanity perpetrated by many of the men enshrined there. These demonstrations are eventually countered by intensely nationalistic (some might even say jingoistic) rallies by those who ardently desire a reawakening of Japanese militarism. The contrast between these two sides of the debate becomes Yasukuni’s focus.

Ying’s film, a laborious project that took over 10 years to complete, is impressive in its scope and compelling in its intimacy. A series of interviews with Kariya Naoji, the last living Yasukuni swordsmith, recall the deliberately slow pacing of Tarkovsky’s films. Ying segments his interviews with Naoji into long sequences that show the ancient man pounding out a piece of iron into a deadly weapon using the same techniques his forebears from time immemorial employed. When Ying and Naoji do talk, the silences between the former's questions and the latter's answers are almost as telling as the answers themselves, the old man obviously completely morally conflicted about the brutal history of the weapons to which he can’t help but feel completely attached. Ying’s depiction of this man’s ambivalent relationship to his life’s work proves an effective anchor to secure the other elements of his film.

Ying lets his camera roll as Chiwas Ari, a Taiwanese protester angered by her grandfather’s inclusion in the shrine, explains that he was forced into military service against his will. She has been to Yaksuni many times over the years, returning to her native country without receiving any satisfaction from the religious leadership at the shrine. Her story is heartbreaking, illuminating a sometimes overlooked element of the controversy, which is usually depicted in black and white terms that pit those who glory in Japan's bellicose legacy against those whose families were decimated by events such as the occupation of Nanking.

Some of the most fascinating moments in Yaksuni are the candid conversations Ying captures between passersby near the shrine. Many of them show the same type of cultural amnesia Americans suffer from regarding our own ethically ambivalent military triumphs. Others vehemently hold forth that the shrine should be closed up and no longer revered. All the while, Prime Minister Koizumi intimates that he believes worshiping at the shrine is a completely personal matter that the greater Asian community should not concern itself with -- a point of view that, of course, only fuels the public controversy.

The only major drawback of Yasukuni is the inclusion by the director of excruciatingly long takes of people marching towards the shrine. These scenes, often bereft of dialogue or narration, break the continuity of the film and could have been saved by better editing. But on the whole, Yasukuni is a fascinating document that anyone curious about Japan and its military legacy will find illuminating.

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