Filmmaker probed Japan's 'war sickness'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 September, 2008, 12:00am

Chinese filmmaker Li Ying's feature- length documentary Yasukuni triggered a political storm in his adopted country, Japan, forcing distributors to suspend its release in April. The 45-year old filmmaker talks about all the fuss and how he hopes the controversial project will be a starting point for a real conversation about Japan's wartime legacy.

Can you tell us a bit about the film?

The film documents the work of Kariya Naoji, Japan's oldest surviving craftsman in the art of sword-making, and intertwines the story with footage of chaotic and, in some cases, bizarre activities at the shrine. It also includes a scene in which former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi is seen worshipping at Yasukuni as well as the ensuing protests. I was trying to present a new perspective about the shrine by exploring the 'spiritual sphere' of Yasukuni and what the shrine means specifically for the Japanese.

What prompted you to embark on the project?

I started the project more than 10 years ago. I remember I was attending a forum in Tokyo in 1997 marking the 60th anniversary of the so-called Nanking Occupation. The 1,000-strong audience burst into thundering applause when a Japanese-made documentary showed the national flag hoisted in Nanking to mark the 'peaceful occupation' of the Chinese city in 1937. The applause was just like bullets from a machine gun shooting at me. I was shocked, and shivering with anger, because they had little regard for how people in the countries Japan victimised would feel. Then I felt compelled to do something.

Why did you pick the shrine as the subject for your film?

Yasukuni Shrine is regarded as the paramount symbol of the Japanese spirit and aesthetics. By deconstructing Yasukuni as a spiritual arena, I noted a sickness - or a post-war syndrome, as I would call it - in Japanese society. This is because among other things, Japan has yet to resolve whether it should take the blame ... for the war. This is the point that was clearly conveyed in my film. Many Japanese who have seen the film said that even the Japanese had little knowledge of the shrine because they had subconsciously forgotten - or deliberately refused to look at, or ignored - the syndrome.

What kind of message do you want to get across to the Japanese public?

I believe that Japanese as a whole have not done enough to atone for the country's wartime history, as history teaching has tried to reinforce public awareness about the suffering from nuclear bombs and Japan's role as a victim of the war.

As for the Japanese government, it has been applying a double standard in the way it looks at the country's wartime history. Internationally, it accepted the convictions of the Tokyo Tribunal over its aggression, while domestically the government, through parliamentary resolutions, designated the war dead as 'heroic souls' who sacrificed their lives for the Japanese throne. But I know that the issues are too complex and too sensitive to resolve in one film, particularly when the issues also involve the role of the Japanese emperor in the war. So I was not trying to draw a conclusion but to open a window of opportunity for the public to rethink the symbolism of the shrine and the country's war past.

So what was the fuss over the film's premiere?

We initially planned a premiere on April 12 after the film was given the Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Documentary at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March, and had rave reviews at this year's Berlin and Sundance film festivals. However, 80 Japanese legislators demanded 'a special preview' after the film was deemed anti-Japan by some. The demand, which amounted to censorship in a country that enshrines the right to free expression, effectively forced several distributors to cancel the scheduled April 12 premiere. The film was eventually shown in Japan in May after a highly publicised outcry over the special preview. But I and my office have been harassed in the form of simple verbal abuse and death threats from radical groups.

So the film eventually had a public screening in the country?

Yes! I was relieved to see the support from a wide cross-section of the public in Japan, which was crucial to the premiere. From the support of the public, we should realise the Japanese nation deserves due respect, although I couldn't attend the premiere because of safety concerns.

You plan to show the film in China, including Hong Kong. What kind of message do you want to send to the public?

First, I hope the Chinese public will learn a bit more about Yasukuni shrine because even the Japanese, let alone the Chinese, have little idea about it. I also want to tell people about the sickness, or post-war syndrome, in Japanese society, and how it leads to the irrational expressions that we see at the shrine. If people, whether they are Japanese or Chinese or Koreans, get too irrational about the shrine and wartime history, it will lead to a vicious cycle.