Yasukuni is a provocative documentary about war, peace and Japan’s ambiguous relationship to its role in the Second World War and the current state and international standing of its empire. The film is directed by Li Yang; a Chinese national who has spent the last 20 years in Japan documenting the Yasukuni shrine for ten years.
Ying’s film has a clear political mission which the director described in the film’s press release. He said,
“I hope my film will help cure what I think of as the post war syndrome. It’s a sickness, this ambiguity towards the people responsible for the war. I hope my film can help cure this syndrome. I think it will be good for the health of the Japanese nation.”
It’s an ambitious mission which seems unlikely to have success make any noticeable changes of practice regarding the shrine anytime soon. Yasukuni generated social uproar in Japan when it was first previewed back in 2008 and its subsequent release in April of that year was cancelled due to pressure from right-wing parliamentarians. This is probably in part thanks to moments that show acts of nationalistic aggression at foreign opposition to the shrine’s worship. Only now is the film being premiered in the UK.
The documentary is fascinating, poignant and an excellent film for the upcoming 70 years commemoration of the end of the Second World War next year. It raises questions and analyses some tantalising concerns about war which are always irrevocably potent. How should we remember the military dead? Can you justify memorialising war criminals if it is a part of a country’s military history? How do we maintain positive international relations with previous enemies when there are still fundamental political and ideological differences? Can we honour tradition and maintain our nationality without reinforcing destructive and hateful nationalism? This may be a film focused on Asian concerns. But its themes are undeniably international and current in the western world. The West’s identity in modern warfare is hardly clean cut anymore. The red white and blue of western democracy has never seemed greyer.
Yasukuni is at once an analysis and respect of the tradition of the Japanese samurai sword and Japanese heritage and a bitter indictment at its past and current memorialising of its war criminals. It’s also a lamentation of war as well as an intelligent indictment of rugged nationalism. At times this analysis and lamentation is angry and sorrowful, and understandably so. It’s no accident that the film’s new release date is on the dawn of the memorial day of the Nanking Massacre of 1937, when 300,000 civilians were massacred in 1937 by Japanese troops. Something that is widely denied by Japanese nationalists.
In a statement regarding Yasukuni’s London release, Ying said,
“The true motive of the film is to probe the symbolic ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ of the Yasukuni shrine, challenge narrow and absurd notions of nationalism and war aesthetics, and thereby reflect on the tragedy of wars in general. This is a film about war and peace.”
The film is indeed that and is indeed a very important and political film. It deserves social and media attention and if you have an interest in provocative documentaries then this is one that should not be missed.
Yasukuni is out now at selected cinemas in London, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Leeds and Glasgow until the 9th of January. If you’re looking to see the film contact firstname.lastname@example.org.