A movie laid to rest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2008, 12:00am

Its name translates as 'peaceful country'. Millions have silently prayed there for an end to wars, and for much of the year the loudest sound is the buzzing of insects and the shuffle of old footsteps to the hushed main hall. Yet, Yasukuni Shrine, which occupies a single square kilometre of central Tokyo, is one of the most controversial pieces of real estate in Asia, resented by millions who consider it a monument to war and Japan's unrepentant and undigested militarism.

A decade ago, when Chinese director Li Ying began filming there, he didn't know what to make of his mysterious subject either. This week, as he watches the official Tokyo launch of his two-hour movie Yasukuni go down in flames amid death threats and cancelled screenings, he says the shrine symbolises a 'disease of the spirit' in Japan.

'That I haven't been able to leave this issue alone for the last 10 years means that I too am suffering,' said the 44-year-old Guangdong native. 'I don't really want to make such a difficult film ... so I must be sick to do it. The point is to look directly at the disease.'

Li's point appears to have been lost on Japanese conservatives, who have branded the movie 'Chinese propaganda', and condemned a decision by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan to award Li a 7.5 million yen (HK$585,127) grant.

In March, the film's distributors were forced to give a private preview to 80 lawmakers after weekly tabloids launched a campaign against the decision to fund it. With criticism growing along with the threat of ultra-right-wing violence, four Tokyo cinemas have pulled out of an official launch on April 12. The documentary is unlikely to ever flicker on Japan's movie screens.

The campaign against the movie is led by powerful Liberal Democrat (LDP) lawmaker Tomomi Inada, who says the production is 'political propaganda'.

'I felt the movie's ideological message was that Yasukuni was a device to drive people into an aggressive war,' she told the Asahi newspaper after the screening, but denied she wanted it banned. 'I have no interest in limiting freedom of expression or restricting the showing of the movie. My doubt is about the movie's political intentions.'

In a now familiar pattern, however, ultra-right-wingers who follow along in the shadow of establishment politicians in Japan threatened retribution against anyone who handled the movie. Anonymous bloggers posted contact details for the distribution company, the Japan Arts Council and every theatre showing it. Anonymous death threats were issued against Dragon Films, the company that produced Yasukuni, forcing it to move its Tokyo offices.

The burying of Li's film follows a string of similar incidents. In February, Tokyo's Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa cancelled a conference by the Japan Teacher's Union - a popular ultra-right target - after learning that 100 right-wing protesters turned up to last year's conference venue. The hotel's decision has been bitterly attacked by union officials. Fear of intimidation ensures that there are still no Japan screenings planned for any of the dozen or so foreign movies made to commemorate the anniversary of the 1937 Nanking Massacre by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Scholars have also lined up to criticise a government decision that they say effectively refused to allow the Italian scholar Antonio Negri to enter the country last month. Mr Negri, an anti-globalisation activist and philosopher who served a prison sentence in Italy on controversial charges of 'insurrection against the state', had been scheduled to give a series of lectures at the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto, but was forced to abruptly cancel his trip after being told he would need a permit to enter the country.

'My sense is that we have entered a very dangerous period for freedom of expression and press freedom in this country,' said Yasuhiko Tajima, a professor of journalism at Tokyo's Sophia University. 'That is the background to these cases. The idea that people are entitled to express different opinions and views is withering. That should be common sense, whether we are on the left or right.'

In a recent press conference to foreign reporters in Tokyo, Ms Inada defended her criticism of Li's movie. 'Wouldn't China have a problem if a Japanese company [funded by tax money] in China created a film conveying the message of the Dalai Lama?'

But the comparison is rejected by Professor Tajima. 'Liberal democratic nations are not afraid of some criticism. Expecting everyone to just cheer on the country and co-operate with the government is more like North Korea or the situation in Tibet.'

Speaking at the Foreign Press Club, veteran Japan commentator and Keizai University professor Andrew Horvat said the debate about Li's movie worried Japan's friends as much as its enemies.

'I'm afraid that Japan's reputation as a democratic country will come under scrutiny.'

But conservatives have been cheered by the cancellation of the screenings. 'Our tax money should not be spent to support a film that expresses an anti-Japan ideology,' wrote one right-wing blogger. 'This is just common sense.'

Why was the movie canned? The cinemas say they were disturbed by right-wing threats and the possibility of 'trouble', particularly during the first days of screening.

'We very much regret cancelling the documentary but we felt we had no choice after considering the safety of our customers,' said Yaseyuki Murayama, a spokesman for Q-AX Cinema in Shibuya.

But Li rejects these claims and says only political pressure explains the sudden decision by all four cinemas to pull the plug.

'Before the movie was released I visited each theatre and talked to the managers,' he said.

'Some magazines had started discussing the movie so we knew that there would be some protests. There was a very strong sense among everyone then of wanting to put this movie out and challenge the protesters.

'So why have they all suddenly changed their minds? I can only conclude that pressure was exerted behind the scenes.'

The controversy over Yasukuni is not difficult to understand. Among the 2.46 million war dead honoured there are more than 1,000 war criminals, including the men who led Japan's brutal pillage of Asia. A museum on the shrine's grounds audaciously rewrites history: teenage suicide bombers (kamikaze) are heroes, America is the enemy and the emperor, supposedly reduced to mortal status after the second world war, is still a deity. The Shinto officials who run the shrine believe they are protecting the 'soul of Japan'.

Li's cinematic gaze is unflinching and sometimes disturbing. In one scene, filmed on August 15, 2005 - the 60th anniversary of Japan's second world war surrender - two young anti-Yasukuni protesters are beaten and chased from the shrine's grounds by right-wingers who yell at them to 'go back to China'. The protesters, who are Japanese, are later hauled off by the police. Archive footage shows Japanese soldiers using Yasukuni swords, forged in the grounds between 1933 and 1945, to decapitate Chinese victims.

But much of the movie, which is narration-free, unobtrusively explores the conflicting sentiments provoked by the memorial among ordinary Japanese, from the two older women who recall the battlefield deaths of relatives and who want the prime minister to pay his respects, to the Buddhist priest who resents that his father's soul is honoured there against his will.

The movie centres on the work of the shrine's last sword-maker, Naoji Kariya, a craftsman who offers few insights into how he helped forge the 8,100 swords that ended up on the battlefield.

Li, who moved to Tokyo in 1989 and speaks fluent Japanese, rejects claims that he is anti-Japanese and describes his movie as a 'love letter' to the Japanese people.

'I live in Japan. How could something that is anti-Japanese be good for me, personally? This love letter may be hard to watch, but that's the form my love takes.'

He says he was motivated to start making the movie a decade ago by the shock of listening to Japanese revisionists at a conference on the Nanking Massacre. 'When it comes to history, there's a gap that's so large.'