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I guess topics which are taboo, or films that have their bans lifted,
will more than likely have its audience base automatically built from
the curiosity arising from its background, wondering on what grounds
and rationale that such a film got made or banned in the first place.
The Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo had its fair share of publicity coming
from ex Japanese prime minister Koizumi's high profile visits to the
shrine for worship, much to the disgust of neighbours China and Korea,
because enshrined within those grounds, are some of the tried war
criminals of WWII, whom to most in Asia, are not deemed to be martyrs,
having started a campaign on aggression in the region.
Depending on which camp you're standing in, there are two sides of the coin even from within a homogeneous society like Japan itself those who find it no big deal for their prime minister to visit the shrine at his own personal capacity, and those who find it wrong to do so. On a macro level, while it is easy to condemn those who partook in the war, from personal stories just like that in any society, there will always be those who have to do it against their will, and even some touching stories coming from the surviving siblings that their brothers get sent away, being quite clear that they'll never come back ever again.
As a documentary, there is no lack of an educational value in it. There were plenty of nuggets of information for the military history buffs, and some of the things I learnt, was how Yasukuni itself has so much importance and relevance to Imperial Japan. For starters, I learnt that swords have an indelible connection to the army and to the shrine, given that sword forgers from the shrine made their swords on those very grounds, and officers at the frontline are bestowed one each. This equates to quality swords running in the thousands being made. Of course, these swords are infamous for being tools used to behead countless of victims, and some of these atrocities get publicized as bravery contests amongst officers.
And the significance of the sword is so important, that within the shrine, the object of worship is none other than one Yasukuni sword which is used to represent the more than 2 million souls who were lost in the war, fighting for the Emperor, which of course amongst that figure, things are not all that clear, with various groups lobbying for things such as removal of names and enshrining of their ancestors, because they were either forced to conscript, or some aren't even Japanese to begin with. It's hard to imagine 2 millions souls captured into one single sword, and if this was a martial arts world we live in, that would be one heck of a powerful sword.
But as a movie, there were a lot more to be desired. Granted when dealing with topics of controversy, answers during interviews are not bound to be forthcoming, given the director's attempt to elicit some candid remarks from the sole remaining Yasukuni sword forger who's already into his 90s. Interviews with his subjects also seem to be more from the man on the street, and thus dilutes some of the expected quality in the answers, which some might allude to talk that you'll hear from coffeeshops, some of which might be entertaining for its point blank accusations, such as the British National Museum being a storage space for goods plundered all over the world. I chuckled at this comment because this is not the first time I'm hearing it, as I've heard it before from a Brit on a tour telling all tourists that same thing as well (he's a tour guide by the way).
Most of the time, the camera lingers in and around the grounds of the shrine on August 15, since it's the day designated as a remembrance, and you have various military groups coming on site to pay their respects, as will other civil groups and protesters as well, thus making it fertile grounds for opposing members of the groups to come into blows, verbally or physically, in trying to force their viewpoints on the other. One thing's for sure though, that groups are passionate in their beliefs, and no words get minced in their shout-outs.
However, the film doesn't go beyond what's shown on the surface. It seems quite contented in capturing events of the day, like a newsreel, but without any further input on how and why such events, shots and the inclusion of such scenes mattered. There was an extended scene involving an American who was flag waving (the stars and stripes) on the grounds to mixed reactions from the Japanese people, as well as dwelling on incidents such as the Taiwanese indigenous groups wanting to reclaim the souls of their ancestors. But alas further interviews to pick the minds of these folks were not done maybe the request to interview them was unsuccessful?
So while it had some ingredients to make it more than worthwhile to sit through 2 hours of a film revolving around the Yasukuni shrine and movement, its presentation could have been a lot stronger. The narrative got quite messy and all over the place, never having a primary focus, but flitted around as and when it found convenience. I felt the ending was rather week because of its reliance on commonly seen archival stock images and videos, but on the whole, an impressive effort and courage to explore something controversial and touchy even until today.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a stunning movie. It was put together from footage shot by
director Li Ying at the shrine over a period of about ten years
beginning around 1997, when he was motivated to make the film after
witnessing a Japanese gathering dedicated to denial of the massacre
known as the Rape of Nanjing, and coming away from it in shock. Taking
a cinema-verite approach, Li wisely merely points the camera and lets
the shrine tell its own story, or rather expose itself, with the
exception of scenes in which he interviews Naoharu Kariya, master
swordmaker for the shrine. The lack of any substantial narration makes
the film only more powerful. I read it as a scathing and startling
indictment, and I know it struck many Japanese the same way, as none
who did not make the August 15th pilgrimage to the shrine could have
imagined the tumult and, yes, alive-and-kicking fanaticism.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of narration, the full meaning of it all may be lost on viewers who are not knowledgeable of the nature of this shrine, which was built by the fledgling Meiji government in 1869 to enshrine the souls of all soldiers who died fighting for the emperor in any wars. (It therefore does not enshrine any non-military who died in wars, or soldiers who died fighting against the new government shortly after its birth.) Unlike Arlington or Kolmeshöhe (Bitburg), it is not a cemetery and contains no graves or ashes. Strictly speaking, people go there not to "pay their respects" to these dead but to worship their "heroic souls" ("eirei") enshrined as "gods" ("kami"). It was the veritable basilica of prewar State Shinto and emperor worship (it is right across the street from the imperial palace), and has retained its essential character even after WWII, right up to the present. Time has, in effect, stopped within its precincts. I would say it stands as a monument to lack of repentance for misdeeds during the war. Any pretense to the contrary was dropped in 1978, when it took the brazen step of officially enshrining 14 Class A war criminals, an act which reportedly soured even the late Emperor Hirohito, who arguably belonged in their number himself, on the idea of resuming his visits there.
How anyone can interpret this documentary as being neutral/noncommittal is beyond me, for its footage of paramilitary parading and right-wing thuggery is nothing but damning. For me, the real "heroic soul" is Taiwanese legislator Gaojin Sumei, who marches into the precincts to protest against the forced enshrinement of Taiwanese nationals and gives the covey of thoroughly cowed Shinto priests an eloquent dressing-down they richly deserved and undoubtedly never forgot. (Her criticisms stung so badly that, in August 2011, the Public Security Bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department tried to have her arraigned on clearly trumped-up charges, in a bid to keep her from coming to Japan for any future protests.) Also making an appearance are certain revanchist Japanese politicians, most notably Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is another Nanjing denier, China-baiter, and dangerous advocate of a return to what he regards as prewar virtues. (For the record, ex PM Koizumi, who also appears, is not one of these).
To carp at "Yasukuni" because of its slow pace or ill-advised editing in parts is akin to pointing out warts on a unicorn, for this film is that rare. I, for one, was on the edge of my seat most of the time, but this may have been partly due to certain apprehension over personal safety, given the threats and coercion directed at many theaters that showed or were going to show the film from the aforementioned right-wing thugs. I strongly recommend it to any people who are under the impression that Japan went through a universal and rigorous soul-searching and was born anew, purged of its militaristic bent, after the war.
The film makes deft use of music from the first movement of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs", whose 1992 recording was released to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The piece is perfect accompaniment for "Yasukuni", which struck me as ultimately a meditation on chilling inhumanity, with similarly resonating tones of profound grief.
'Yasukuni' is a documentary about the Yasukuni Shrine where Japanese people may pay their respects to the soldiers and others who died during conflicts over the last century or so of Japan's military past. About two and a half million people are enshrined there, the mass majority of whom died during the Second World War, 1000 of them were convicted of war crimes, just over ten of those being Class-A war criminals; responsible for the massacre of millions of civilians of other Asian countries and thousands of prisoners of war from the Allied forces. It remains a deeply controversial issue and is still a key reason for the poor political relationship between China and Japan and also Korea and Japan, and the strong feelings of dislike and even hatred which exist amongst these countries' peoples. I saw this documentary with directly-translated subtitles, which means that they have been put through a translation device, consequently, I could not follow all the subtleties of what was said. Fortunately, a documentary's main purpose is to provoke thought, and this film certainly satisfies that aim. Director Li Ying has added no voice-over narration and frequently leaves the camera running for extended periods, which allows the events and non-events to unravel in a loose and naturalistic way. We see extensive footage of ceremonies, protests against, and shows of support for, the shrine, all filmed by a shaky, hand-held camera. There are reels of footage of a 90 year old sword-maker, whose frequent silences and non-responses may tell us more about Japanese culture and feelings about Yasukuni than any direct answer could. At one point we see him fiddling with his stereo-system for over 3 minutes whilst muttering that the buttons are too small, just to show us what he listens to of an evening. Yes, over three minutes of a ninety year old man wrestling with a tape-player; if you want rapid-fire, flashy edits and action then don't come near this film; if, however, you are looking for a deeper meditation on a difficult subject then you are in the right place. The swords that he makes are shown to be a vital symbol of Japanese spirit and he is humbly proud of his life's work, whilst an underlying sinister feeling grows because we know that those swords were used to behead countless innocents. Several other main issues are acknowledged including Former-President Junichiro Koizumi's support for Yasukuni, and the visit of a Taiwianese delegation trying to remove their relatives from the shrine. Without accurate subtitles I could not gauge how much the issue of Japanese revisionism was raised, which was a little frustrating as this ability or inability to look history fairly and honestly in the face is perhaps the most vital issue of all for the Yasukuni Shrine. Overall, those with clear and uncompromising views either for or against paying respects at Yasukuni will probably have little to complain about if they see this film; it is well-balanced and appears to remain as neutral as possible. For those people who wish to explore this important and complex topic, then I think this documentary is an excellent place to start, although it will require your patience.
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