“Yasukuni,” a new documentary from Chinese filmmaker Li Ying, concerns the titular controversial Japanese shrine, that holds 2.5 million Japanese war dead. Yasukuni is also the name of a particular sword once made on the grounds of the shrine and used by the Japanese military. The Yasukuni shrine has been the scene of many protests especially when Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi worshipped there. The controversy is due in part to the fact that the shrine holds the remains of World War II “Class A” war criminals. The shrine also holds the remains of citizens from Taiwan, Korea and Okinawa, who were conscripted into the Japanese army and killed in battle. Their relatives want the names of their dead removed from the shrine and the remains returned. On the other side of the issue are those who look upon Yasukuni as the Japanese equivalent of Arlington National Cemetary and say they are simply honoring and remembering those who died for Japan.
Director Li Ying lets each side have its say. The issues are established fairly early but then become belabored over the film’s two hour running length. Many of the scenes at the shrine and various interviews clearly could have been shortened.
In addition Ying assumes a certain level of historical knowledge on the part of the audience. A trimmer film would have allowed time to give more background on Japan during and after World War II and fit this more interestingly into the modern day scenes of protest and justification.
Some explanation of how this shrine can house 2.5 million dead people, a tremendous number for a single location, would have added another dimension. What does it take to maintain a structure holding so many bodies, especially one that has been around since 1869? Again, information like this in addition to further historical background would have made the documentary more compelling.
The most involving interview subject is 90 year old Kariya Naoji the sole surviving craftsman of Yasukuni swords. Ying’s camera holds on this elderly artisan as we watch him slowly consider his answers to Ying’s questions and work at his craft with knarled, permanently dirtied hands in what looks like a crowded, junk strewn garage. Naoji tells an obviously embellished story of a Yasukuni sword once splitting a machine gun in half. The reality seems to be that the swords were used for atrocities such as a 100 man beheading contest between Japanese officers. Still the Yasukuni sword has its place in the culture and in the mind of this man.
Much of the documentary is poorly shot. The footage at the shrine and “on the street” interviews look as if they were shot with a single chip consumer camcorder using the onboard microphone. The verite style does at first lend a certain immediacy, which, after a while, becomes grating.
While I certainly did learned from “Yasukuni” I felt ultimately it was not nearly as provocative as it could have been.
“Yasukuni” will have a one week run at Film Forum from August 12-18.
“Yasukuni” director Li Ying, 123 minutes, 2007