Li Ying’s “Yasukuni”—which ignited controversy in Japan where political groups sought to suppress the film—opened yesterday, August 12, at New York’s Film Forum, set to coincide with the 64th anniversary of the end of WWII on August 15.
From Film Forum’s website: “When Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi insisted that his visits to the Yasukuni shrine were a purely personal matter, he unleashed an international furor. Established in 1869, the shrine houses 2.5 million Japanese war dead including WWII ‘class A war criminals,’ among them General Tojo and others sentenced to death at the Tokyo Trial (Japan’s Nuremberg). Visitors to Yasukuni include still-militant Japanese nationalists as well as outraged protesters from China, Taiwan, Korea, and Okinawa. Chinese filmmaker Li Ying doesn’t pull his punches. He includes archival images of a ‘100-man beheading contest’ between Japanese officers as well as a fascinating contemporary interview with a 90-year-old craftsman who continues to forge Yasukuni swords, used in these and other atrocities.”
“For a viewer not steeped in Asian history and Japanese politics, Mr. Li’s oblique, cinéma vérité approach may be a little confusing at first,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “But the absence of narration or an expressed directorial point of view is central to the film’s achievement, which is to address a passionately contested snarl of issues with a calm, nuanced ethical curiosity. Both the defenders of Japanese imperial glory and the victims of Japanese expansionist barbarism are heard. And while Japanese conservatives were outraged by the film when it was released last year, Mr. Li’s patience with their side’s view might also cause queasiness among those who wish for more overt expressions of candor, contrition and indignation about Japan’s conduct during World War II.”
“Part tribute and part critique, Li necessarily filmed the bulk of Yasukuni with a clandestine, handheld DV camera,” writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York. “This results in an unfortunately ugly visual palette, yet it also allows for more or less unguarded interactions with the varied groups of people (nationalists, tourists, politicians, protestors) who visit the memorial on a daily basis. Li lets these sequences play out well past the point of discomfort—the film is a trying yet worthwhile sit, not only for the information it relates, but for the sensations it elicits.”
“Until its final reel—an angry war montage set to Górecki that tips the movie’s hand unnecessarily—this is basically a blackly amusing two hours about the persistence of pathology,” observes Vadim Rizov in the Village Voice. “The documentary’s cultural impact is lost in translation—Yasukuni initially had trouble getting shown at all in Japan—but the skill of the enterprise isn’t.”
“By courting danger and sparking dialogue Yasukuni might be labeled de facto essential viewing—the kind of film to be commended for its taboo-busting courage—even though the content itself is a mixed bag,” writes Reverse Shot’s Michael Joshua Rowin. “This is because ‘Yasakuni’ lives and dies by Ying’s penchant for vérité-style in-the-moment drama, which yields material both scintillating and dull.”
Simon Abrams, writing for Slant Magazine: “Judging by the bitterness that the shrine has inspired, Li undoubtedly had a wealth of material to sift through and a considerable amount of pressure on him to choose only the least inflammatory bits. The fact that he didn’t cave under such extraordinary pressure but instead created a piece every bit as raw as the emotions swirling around Yasukuni marks him as budding major talent with a shrewd eye for detail.”
“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,” observes Rica for the Auteurs Notebook. “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.”
Maria Garcia for Film Journal International writes: “Yasukuni is fascinating for its portrayal of the dark side of Japan’s national character, but it’s lengthy, and Li’s premise feels contrived: For the filmmaker, Japanese history, culture and religion, as well as the country’s politics of nationalism under Emperor Hirohito, all converge at Yasukuni—or, more accurately, in master sword-maker Naoji Kariya.”
“Interspersed with this material—as Li becomes a part of the choreography he’s filming, there’s an extraordinary sense of movement and space—are casual conversations with Kariya Naoji, the last surviving Yasukuni swordsmith, before and after he forges a sword identical to the 8,000 or so made by him and his fellow shrine craftsmen for Japan’s officers during the ’15-Year War,'” writes Olaf Möller in a piece on the director and his film for Film Comment. “Naoji’s nonchalant mastery and patchy memory provide reflective distance, and Li keeps his compositional cool throughout, unleashing his fury only in the final 10 minutes with a montage recounting the history of modern wartime Japan in which he conveys what all too many Japanese would rather not hear: that Emperor Hirohito tacitly endorsed mass murder and that, by extension, the entire nation was fundamentally guilty of war crimes. Nevertheless, Li maintains that ‘Yasukuni’ was never intended as a provocation but rather as a gift to the Japanese, one which might help them come to terms with their history.”
Alexandra A. Seno profiles Li in the New York Times.
Watch the trailer for “Yasukuni” on YouTube.