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Li Ying's superb documentary focuses on swordmaker Kariya's work for the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine in Tokyo, said to house 2.5 million souls.


Director: Li Ying
Cast: Kariya Naoji, Sugarawa Ryuken, Chiwas Ari
Rated: NR
Studio: Film Forum
Year: 2007
US date: 2009-08-12 (Limited release)

I am using the doctrine of Yasukuni to make a film: the world of symbols. The sword is the spirit, but what meaning does that spirit have? That’s the question the film raises.

-- Li Ying

"Your memories are very valuable." His interviewer is gently insistent as 90-year-old swordsmith Kariya Naoji bows his head and smiles. Still, he doesn’t speak, doesn't quite put those valuable memories into words. Instead, he works. Day after day, hour after hour, he makes swords. The process is painstaking and ancient, as revealed in Yasukuni: repeatedly, Kariya appears bent over his forge and before his furnace, long slivers of metal bright burning orange as he hammers them into flawless shape.

Li Ying's superb documentary focuses on Kariya's work for the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine in Tokyo, said to house 2.5 million souls. Established in 1869, Yasukuni has long attracted devout worshippers of eirei ("heroic spirits," or soldiers who have died in war -- under a range of circumstances) and, more recently, political controversy. As the film points out, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's decision to visit the shrine in 2005 ignited protests, in particular from those who see the site's purpose as the veneration of Japanese militarism. Li, born in China and living in Japan for 20 years, explores the dispute without taking an explicit side, observing rituals and visitors to Yasukuni as they make clear their concerns and convictions.

These images, gathered over a number of years and often recorded on a discreet, tourist-style DV camera, show various reactions to the shrine. Some attendees, like Koizumi, appear reverent and composed; others, including an American (a "real estate broker from Nevada," he says) holding a U.S. flag and a sign announcing his support of Koizumi, make their politics plain, a gesture that irritates other attendees who claim for Yasukuni a certain "sacredness," that is, a devout nationalistic pride. One attendee questions the American's motives directly: "This is the place where we should honor the heroic spirits," he says. "No American flags, no commie flags, no crosses. Only the Rising Sun belongs here."

Much of the controversy over Yasukuni has to do with how the Rising Sun is invoked, and especially how Japanese history is told and retold. Some of the soldiers commemorated at the shrine took part in the Nanking massacre (many convicted of Class A war crimes). Others, like the ancestors of indigenous Taiwanese activist Chiwas Ari, were victims of Japanese brutality. "I always feel sad when I come here," she tells a television interviewer. "The wood on that toji gate stolen from a Taiwanese forest… Japan's invasion killed generations of indigenous Taiwanese." Inside the shrine, she confronts a worker over the enshrinement of souls who were victims of Japan's colonial violence. "If you believe in Shinto," she says, her argument translated phrase by phrase. "You should respect other people's beliefs. That's what one would expect. Your Shinto is hogwash, it's just crap." Multiple reporters record her statement, exemplifying the media coverage that has helped to make the discord increasingly visible. Li's camera remains still, watching her walk away from the shrine doorway.

When a protestor makes a brief ruckus at the shrine, denouncing Japanese "wars of aggression," he is beaten dragged off by men who accuse him of being Chinese. "Grab him!" shout his pursuers, "Worthless scum! Impertinent punk, go back to China, you scumbag." When the young man reveals that he is in fact Japanese, his assailants and police offer to tend to his injuries. "Why are you doing this?" they ask, unable to comprehend his complaint.

Sugawara Ryuken, Secretary General of the Jodo Shinshu Families Association, raises another question for the shrine keepers. His father, he says, was a Buddhist priest sent to the front in 1943, when Japan was "clearly losing the war." He insists that the commemorative photo of his father in military uniform, strange as it may seem given his faith, is important to make the point: "To send the clergy into combat amounts to forcing them to bankrupt themselves. That's how cruel this country's war was."

To illustrate at least part of this cruelty, the film includes archival footage and still photos, most strikingly, documentation of the beheadings that some activists now refute. "Sign our petition to deny Nanking and the beheading contest," calls out a woman holding a sign wrapped in plastic against a light rain. "Comfort women, forced labor, the Rape of Nanking, Yasukuni. These issues are an assault on the spirit of Japan." Her request helps to showcase the problem represented by the shrine as well as the idea (or maybe the spirit) of "Japan." After she speaks, the film shows photos of Japanese soldiers with swords in hand, captioned to indicate their prowess in exactly this terrible contest. Sentenced to death by a war crimes tribunal in 1947, they have since been enshrined at Yasukuni.

Repeatedly, the documentary shows how history is made and remembered, then remade and re-remembered. This is not to say Japan has a corner on such revisionism: certainly, most nations reshape their pasts in order to perpetuate pride and respect in subsequent generations. The swordmaker Kariya appears repeatedly throughout the film, his painstaking labor and visible patience a poignant demonstration of his dedication. When he does speak, Kariya's judgment is both humble and honored. "War causes all kinds of problems," he says slowly. "War is awful and those who went would never want to go again."


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