Established in 1869, the Yasukuni shrine is home to Japan’s “heroic spirits,” a.k.a. its war dead. It’s a place to worship and pay respect, or, if you’re Chinese-born filmmaker Li Ying, to record the battles still being waged over a peaceful nation’s militaristic past. Yasukuni, which is showing in the Japan Society’s festival of recent releases, documents the bloody tussles that arise over fully reckoning with World War II, or “The Great East Asia War.” How does one properly honor this spiritual seat of fallen soldiers, when their rolls include convicted war criminals and forced conscripts foreign and domestic? Drawing on ten years of verité filming, Li shows bullying nationalists, snap-to veterans, a Nevadan sympathizer and not-about-to-be-bullied petitioners. But he frames these tense, often cross-generational scenes with an enigmatic, reserved interview subject: the last surviving Yasukuni swordsmith.
Among other things, it’s a thorny matter of national heritage that might remind American viewers of disputes over the Confederate flag. (Another echo: former Prime Minister Koizumi’s “unofficial” visits to the shrine while in office were criticized partly in terms of keeping religion and state separate.) Nervously chuckling, that 90-year-old swordsmith provides Li with a fraught symbol that deepens with meaning: noble blades, hammered in a forge and inscribed with care, and once given to officers who might well have used them for beheading. Can you tell me about what makes Yasukuni special, Li gently asks, and, getting little response, rustles up old newspaper articles about a beheading competition between two officers (“Contest in a Dead Heat”). Meanwhile, the shrine’s museum questions “distorted” accounts that mention war crimes.
A martial montage of archival snippets, scored to Gorecki, concludes Yasukuni, which was resisted by some theaters in Japan, with the sense of a past that can’t be escaped or denied. Another film at Japan Cuts does much the same for the turmoil following 1960s protest movements. United Red Army opens on a mountain obscured by clouds, an iconic image that here suggests the horrific oblivion of its radical subjects. Koji Wakamatsu’s grueling docudrama never blinks from the tightly spiraling madness of the titular “revolutionaries.” The whole film undergoes constriction: the panoply of events and voices in the first portion’s dense catch-up about protest marches and university occupations gives way to a single splinter group and its increasingly cultish discipline. Soon we’re bunkered in a cabin with a leader who, sadistic as only a onetime deserter of his cause could be, stabs those who won’t “self-critique.”
It’s a gruesome spectacle of ideology enforced by violence alone, and the 72-year-old Wakamatsu knows his history well (so well that he is still barred passage to the United States). Some members simply run away into the woods; ultimately, the rump of the group occupies a snowbound country inn and orders the female caretaker at gunpoint to remain “neutral” over the group’s endeavor. As with Yasukuni, the story has one final chapter: a scrolling chronology of the United Red Army’s exploits and death throes since the televised police siege of the inn. At three hours, this is not a movie entered upon lightly, especially since the plunge into radicalism can be terrifyingly absurd after the not fully fleshed out convictions of the bustling first portion.
But with the Japan Cuts screening featuring Wakamatsu live from Japan via digital link-up and his screenwriter in person, a lively discussion seems a possibility. But the series is not limited to grim docu-based history — also upcoming are Cannes winner The Mourning Forest, Takashi Miike’s latest, and two films by the late, great Kon Ichikawa (whose own World War II conscience-scorcher Fires on the Plain is on DVD).
Through July 13 at Japan Society.