Yasukuni (2007) - News Poster



'Yasukuni' team dealing with threats

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BERLIN -- The director and producers of a documentary about Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine have received multiple death threats from right-wing groups in Japan that want to prevent the movie's local release.

Japan's Dragon Films has decided to move its Tokyo offices and are taking steps to protect its staff after anonymous death threats against the company, its personnel and Li Ying, the Chinese-born director of "Yasukuni".

"The threats began about two months ago, when we started press screenings of the movie in Japan," the director told The Hollywood Reporter in Berlin, where "Yasukuni" is screening in the Berlin International Film Festival's Forum sidebar. "The threats have gotten worse and worse as we have gotten closer to the Japanese theatrical release of the film in April."

Li spent 10 years researching and shooting his documentary, which looks at the controversy surrounding the shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including a handful of top war criminals. For many, the site is a symbol of Japan's militaristic past, and it has become a rallying point for the far right.


Pusan International Film Festival

Yasukuni, a documentary about the site of ongoing controversy sparked by Japanese state officials' visits to honor deceased Japanese soldiers, is the first of its kind. Instead of harping on disputed grievances like the Nanjing massacre or comfort women, the film hones in on the shrine itself: It traces its imperial lineage, unpeeling layers of mystique surrounding the shrine to show what actually still goes on in and outside its vicinity.

Likely to become a hotly debated film, its domestic distributor has plans to launch openings in Tokyo's major cinemas early next year. Simultaneous releases in China and Korea are in the pipeline.

Director Li Ying ("2H," Mona Lisa) has been a resident of Japan since 1989. Hence he shows considerable tact in handling extensively researched material and sensitivity to Japanese culture. He reveals the little known fact that it is not tombstones or plaques that are worshipped at Yasukuni, but a sword enshrined within its inner sanctum. Known as yasukunitou, it consecrates (as of 2004), 2,466,532 "heroic souls," 80% of whom died in World War II. This elucidates why contention about commemorating Class A war criminals (already merged with other souls in a Shinto ritual) is not as clear-cut as it seems.

The film's leitmotif is the Japanese blade, pertaining to an exploration of bushido ethics, Shinto philosophy, war ideology and their mark on the national psyche. The prologue introduces 90-year-old Naoji Kariya, the only surviving bladesmith who helped forge 8,100 yasukunitou wrought within the shrine's premises, then shipped to the front till 1945.

The entire film is punctuated by excerpts of Kariya making his last blade, eliciting respect for an artisan's single-minded dedication to his craft. Yet his reticence and inscrutable smiles to questions on the historical implications of his vocation become the film's most telling moments.

From this premise, the film branches out to present multilayered perspectives on the subject from predominantly Japanese voices. Shot fly-on-the-wall style over 10 years, before most of the grounds became off limits to media, rare footage display a hub of dramatic human interaction. With the absence of voiceovers, personal judgment gives way to candid airing of opinions from militants and pacifists, descendents of "war criminals" stigmatized by their own society and an alliance of Koreans, Taiwan aboriginals, Okinawans and a Buddhist priest petitioning for discharge of their ancestors' spirits.

Compact editing by Li and Yuji Oshige makes for a compelling denouement montage of archival footage of kendo practice segueing into more troubling images all set to Gorecki's elegiac Third Symphony, composed on the 50th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland.


Dragon Films Inc/Beijing Film Academy Youth Studio/Beijing Zhongjun Film Inc.


Director: Li Ying

Producers: Zhang Yuhui, Zhang Huijun, Hu Yun

Executive producers: Zhang Huijun, Hu Yun, Jiang Xuanbin, Li Ying; Directors of photography: Yasuhiro Hotta, Li Ying

Sound: Takayuki Nakamura

Co-producers: Tetsujiro Yamagami, Li Hongyu, Xu Xiangyun, Bobby K S Wan, Huang Haibo

Editor: Yuji Oshige


Kariya Naoji

Sugawara Ryuken

Gaojin Sumei (Chiwas Ari)

Running time -- 123 minutes

No MPAA rating

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