Synopsis: As recently as this past spring, Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso (and before him P.M. Koizumi) unleashed an international furor by paying respects at the notorious Yasukuni Shrine. Established in 1869, Yasukuni 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 Kariya Naoji, at 90 years old, the last surviving craftsman of Yasukuni swords, used in these and other atrocities. [Synopsis courtesy of Film Forum]
Round-up: "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." "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." "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."