Berlinale 2008: "Yasukuni" (Li, China)

Yasukuni

When I was in Berlin in February this year the film Yasukuni was being screened during Berlinale. I didn't pay much attention to it. Yasukuni is a familiar issue for Japanese like me. I could easily guess the film had a critical look at the Yasukuni shrine when it was directed by a Chinese filmmaker. In the end, I didn't watch the film at the festival.

Now in Japan, the film is at the height of controversy. Ultranationalists, a vocal presence in Japanese society, threatened the distributor and the film's theatrical release was postponed. MPs had their own screening and some of them found it being funded by Japan Arts Council "problematic," claiming the film was not based on a "neutral" point of view (does any neutral media exist?). On the other hand, the Tokyo Association of Lawyers held its own public screening to discuss the film and human rights.

Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine located in the middle of Tokyo that is dedicated to the spirits of soldiers and others who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan. The shrine was founded originally for the casualties of the Boshin War in 1869, which was a civil war between the two-hundred-year-old Tokugawa shogunate (military government) and those seeking to return the political power to the emperor. The imperial court won and Meiji Period started in 1868.

Japan still maintains the culture and tradition of respecting and worshiping the deceased. The Japanese have long believed that the spirit of the deceased remains eternally on earth and guard their descendants. The spirits are still an object of worship because some of these traditions, along with the belief of Shinto, are still inherited. Yasukuni shrine is an example which represents genuinely Japanese culture.

Every summer around 15th of August, the day the Pacific War ended, the Yasukuni shrine becomes a source of considerable controversy. Of the enshrined, more than a thousand have been convicted of war crimes by a post-war court including convicted Class-A war criminals. Furthermore, a shrine-owned history museum has been accused of containing some conservative revisionism in its accounts of Japan's actions in the war, as well as glorifying an aggressive militaristic past. Visits to the shrine by the MPs, Prime Ministers in particular, have been a cause of protest by Chinese, Taiwanese and Koreans. The question given by Japanese reporters every summer is whether the visits are private or public. Japanese separate one's public and private selves. If one answers that it is a public visit, he is considered as hawkish.

At the beginning of the film directed by Li Ying, we see an old craftsman forging a Japanese sword. Until I saw this film, I had not been aware that it was neither a tomb nor a monument that was worshiped as the main object at Yasukuni, but one sword, which is a symbol of samurai and soldiers. Other than this interesting revelation, there is nothing particularly new in the film. It proceeds with familiar scenes for Japanese: the various people who visit the shrine on 15th of August. A group of men marching in soldiers' uniform from 60 years ago. An American real estate developer protesting in support of Yasukuni, but ordered by the police to leave as his American flag caused discomfort among visitors. (It is often the case that one is blamed in Japan if he or she is disturbing harmony even though proposing justice). A Chinese group pleading to return the spirit of their ancestors, which are enshrined in Yasukuni, to China, as they do not wish them to be with those of Japanese soldiers. A man repeatedly shouting "Go back to China" at a Chinese protester. And a requisite clash between a protester and the police.

In the last 20 minutes, at the climax of the film, Li reveals another symbolic meaning of the sword, the shrine, and the emperor, with photos of Japanese soldiers beheading Chinese and Koreans. Li Ying states, "Christians believe in confessions and re-birth while in Asia pride counts most. In Japan it is the emperor and only it matters."Living away from Japan myself, whenever I think of Yasukuni I cannot help comparing this phenomenon with Remembrance Day in the U.K. People wear red poppy flowers on their chests to remember soldiers and civilians who died at WWI and II. Each year, the nation takes a bit of a patriotic look that day, but there is no controversy and no one against the reflection. Is it because the U.K. had won the war so they may escape accusations? I don't think so.

Probably it is the lack of democracy, discussion or communication, in Japan which makes the situation worse. In the U.K., there is a great deal of concern if anyone tries to silence a protester. This is not the case in Japan. Harmony and thought transference are most valuable there. The film Yasukuni does not explore this point. It stands on the perspective of Japan's former colonies and does not go beyond that. However, the director, who has resided in Japan for 19 years, never takes an aggressive attitude. The film is a persevering observation of Japanese society and gives one a chance to see what still lies beneath it.

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