Page last updated at 15:04 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 16:04 UK

Japan shies away from shrine film

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Still from the film of the Yasukuni shrine ( image courtesy of Yasukuni Dragon Films)
Criticism of the documentary has disappointed Li Ying
An old man wearing a white tunic and a dark apron, steps into the frame from the right of the cinema screen.

From a scabbard he pulls a long ceremonial sword. Calmly and with precision, he carves an arc in the air above his head with the blade, before bringing it down firmly, deliberately in the space in front of him.

Naoji Kariya, who is 90, is the last living swordsmith at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, the place where Japan remembers its war dead.

He is one of the characters interviewed at length for a new documentary, simply entitled Yasukuni, made by Chinese film-maker Li Ying.

The film has attracted criticism from some lawmakers in Japan, who have described it as "anti-Japanese."

Those comments have been blamed for inciting right-wing activists to make threats of violence and stage protests against cinemas that planned to show the movie this weekend.

Five have cancelled screenings.

Publicly funded

For the moment, the film - which has won awards at festivals elsewhere in the world - will not be released in Japan.

But the criticism of his documentary has disappointed Li Ying - particularly the comments from some lawmakers, who demanded a special screening before it went to the cinemas.

Masahisa Sato
Lots of cinemas decided themselves to cancel the film to avoid trouble. Those who say politicians added to the pressure on them are wrong
Masahisa Sato, MP

"'Anti-Japanese' was a phrase that was used here often before the Sino-Japanese War," the director says.

"It was used to encourage nationalism. It's a very dangerous phrase. Those who use it are irresponsible."

The joint Sino-Japanese production was partly financed by the Japanese taxpayer. The film-makers were given a grant of 7.5 million yen.

Some politicians have questioned whether this was an appropriate use of public funds, claiming that the film should have been more balanced.

In all, Li Ying has spent 10 years, on and off, making the film.

During visits to Yasukuni he says he was at times threatened, abused, and on occasion had his equipment confiscated. Newspapers here have reported that he has received death threats.

He says he set out to try to understand better what the shrine means to Japanese people.

Those who gave their lives in the service of the Japanese emperor are honoured at the shrine. Among them are 14 class A war criminals, convicted after the end of World War II.

It was the place where the kamikaze pilots promised each other they would meet again once their deadly missions were complete.

To many it is one of the most sacred places in Japan. To others it is a place they feel glorifies war.

Legacy of war

Li Ying includes both supporters and opponents of Yasukuni in his film.

Japanese lawmakers line up as they visit Yasukuni Shrine (2007)
Built in 1869 to honour victims of the Boshin Civil War
Now venerates the souls of 2.5m of Japan's war dead
Those enshrined include 14 Class A war criminals

Some incidents are hard to watch. In one scene, left-wing activists trying to disrupt the singing of the national anthem during a public meeting at the shrine are pulled away and beaten up by right-wingers.

Others incidents are compelling. The camera lingers as it watches the swordsmith carefully sharpening the blade of a ceremonial sword he has fired in a brazier.

Shinto priests stride through the darkness towards the innermost sanctum of the shrine to carry out their devotions.

A lone soldier, dressed in the uniform of the Imperial Army marches through the rain to salute his fallen comrades.

"The subject of the film is the aftermath - the legacy of the war, as defined in the space of Yasukuni," Li Ying says.

"The debate over Yasukuni is a debate over symbols. That's why I focused on the swordsmith. The sword is the symbol of Yasukuni."

Some cinemas have been reluctant to show the film due to the public debate surrounding its content.

One is the Humax Cinema in Tokyo, where Akio Nakamura works.

"We had right-wingers with a loudspeaker van outside the cinema for three days," he says.

"Since we can't stop them and it annoys our customers, we have had to give in."

Right-wing objections

Japan's right-wing activists are noisy - and sometimes violent. Although they are a tiny minority here, they know how to intimidate.

Still of an actor from the film ( image courtesy of Yasukuni Dragon Films)
The film aims to explain what the shrine means to the Japanese
"Yasukuni has become the touchstone of the Japanese right wing," explains Professor Phil Deans, from Temple University in Tokyo.

"They are very concerned that a documentary made by a Chinese film-maker, a foreigner, will be critical, and that's why it is such an important issue for them."

But Masahisa Sato, a law-maker from the governing Liberal Democratic Party who is a defender of the shrine, believes the fault lies with the cinemas, not with the politicians who criticised the film.

"I don't think the pressure of the protesters was that great," he argues.

"Lots of cinemas decided themselves to cancel the film to avoid trouble. Those who say politicians added to the pressure on them are wrong."

However, the row may yet backfire on the film's detractors.

Plans to show the film this weekend might have been dropped, but the distributors are confident that once the dust has settled, the film's new-found notoriety will mean it gets shown in more than 20 cinemas nationwide.

video and audio news
Some excerpts from the controversial documentary

Japanese activist kills himself
05 Mar 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan activist posts finger to PM
23 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan's Abe shuns Yasukuni visit
15 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan PM sent war shrine offering
08 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
China warns Japan on shrine trips
04 Apr 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan shrine 'to review display'
06 Oct 06 |  Asia-Pacific


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific