Directed by Li Ying
Shinto beliefs hold that a single blade at the Yasukuni Shrine contains the spirits of two and a half million men who died fighting for the emperor of Japan between the monument's founding in 1869 and the end of the Great East Asia War almost exactly 64 years ago. Scattered among the millions of names on the Yasukuni rolls: a number of convicted war criminals, including those sentenced to die at the postwar Tokyo Trial. Chinese-born Li Ying's extraordinary (and in Japan extraordinarily controversial) documentary Yasukuni, many years in the making, examines the ritual ceremonies carried out at the site as well as the developing tensions between furious protesters and defensive nationalists. The memorial turns into a tinderbox of sorts as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the site, justified as purely personal and in the ultimate interest of peace, become the subject of heated international debate.
In its decade-plus immersion in its subject and its interest in how hot button issues play out at the level of crowd dynamics, Yasukuni calls to mind Tony Kaye's superlative abortion doc Lake of Fire, though the stark, beautiful black and white of the latter differs greatly from the rain-on-lens tourist Handycam aesthetic of the former. Li includes footage of the last surviving maker of Yasukuni swords (while only one is said to contain the spirits of the war dead, thousands more were forged at the shrine), a lively 90-year-old man who responds to questions with a quick dart of the head but beyond that offers few answers. The majority of the film, though, consists of the patient, probing observation of the pamphleteers and picketers around the memorial. One of Li's most interesting subjects is a Nevada real estate broker who hoists an American flag in front of the shrine in support of Koizumi's right to pay his respects there. At first the Japanese reaction is friendly — several people approach him speaking English — but the scene slowly devolves into shoving and angry "Go home, Yankee" shouting. A later extended sequence in which protesters disrupt an anniversary celebration takes an even more violent turn.
Li is clearly of the opinion that worshipping a weapon that essentially stands in for Tojo is by no measure a suitable way of atoning for and moving on from war atrocities, but he carefully lays out his argument only near Yasukuni's end, in a progression of archival photographs of Yasukuni swords being used in Nanking beheadings. It's a methodical and devastating conclusion to an impressive film that engages vital questions of remembrance.
Opens August 12 at Film Forum