Thursday, July 03, 2008

NYAFF & Japan Cuts: Yasukuni

It is a little surprising to see a documentary like director Li Ying’s Yasukuni screen under the auspices of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts (co-presented by the NYAFF), because it documents Japanese attitudes about World War II many would probably prefer not to advertise to the world. Generating more controversy than tickets sales in Japan, with its central character, ninety year-old sword smith Kariya Naoharu, demanding to be cut from film, Yasukuni (trailer here) will screen at the Japan Society this Saturday.

Naoharu is the final surviving artisan forging swords in the workshop connected to the Yasukuni shrine honoring those who died in military service to the emperor. Though founded in 1869, eighty percent of the consecrated were killed in World War II. You will not hear those words in the documentary though, as visitors to the shrine prefer the term “Great East Asia War.” As heard in the doc, the recorded message at the Yasukuni visitor center veers pretty close to Orwellian territory:

“If Japan is confused today, veterans tell us that the Great East Asia War was a war fought to defend Japan. And they declare: If you claim that Japan fought a war of aggression, that the Japanese army committed crimes, then you have been manipulated by false history and you are violating the honor and pride of the Japanese.”

Pearl Harbor? Never happened. Neither did the Rape of Nanking according to visitors to the shrine. Cranks can be found anywhere, but according to the film, convicted war criminals, including those involved in a “beheading contest” in Nanking, are also consecrated in Yasukuni. Conversely, some families want their departed removed from the shrine for religious or cultural reasons. The Yasukuni flack seen accepting a petition from a coalition of Buddhists and ethnic Taiwanese and then dissing the families does not do any PR favors for the Shinto shrine.

Prime Minister Koizumi (in the third documentary I have seen him in this year) takes heat for praying at Yasukuni, but to be fair he is in a tough spot. It is completely appropriate to honor the Japanese rank-and-file who died in WWII, provided a distinction is made between them and the militarist government, whose policies caused their deaths. Rewriting history and denying Japanese war crimes is an entirely different matter. (However, one wishes he had taken a harder line with North Korea in the Megumi Yokota case and campaigned more for Yama-san.)

Long sequences of Yasukuni simply consist of the various ceremonies and protests at the controversial shrine. After a while, you get the point. Periodically, the audience sees the taciturn sword smith going about his craft with zen-like calm (which is oddly fascinating), juxtaposed against historical images of the Imperial war machine. That Naoharu is not thrilled with the final film is actually understandable.

Of course, the film was primarily intended as a reality check for Japanese audiences. The fact that Li Ying is Chinese did not exactly help its reception. In general though, it seems safe to say there is more than a little denial at work in Japan regarding World War II, which could lead to some fundamental misunderstandings about how the world perceives Japan’s actions in the course of twentieth century history. It screens under the joint auspices of NYAFF and Japan Cuts July 5th.