Yasukuni – a report from Japan
The right wing push to shut down a new film on the Yasukuni Shrine has largely gone unreported by the US media. Here’s a report on the travails of filmmaker Li Ying and what he’s up against in getting his film shown.
Yasukuni, the new documentary on the controversial Tokyo shrine that stands as the symbolic heart of Japanese right wingers has been making headlines for the fact that it is not being shown. All of the Tokyo cinemas that had originally booked the film for an April 12 opening have cancelled screenings, bowing to right wing pressure and threats. As the Tokyo venues reneged on their commitments to screen the film, a handful of cinemas outside of Tokyo have stood firm promising to screen Yasukini. In the wake of these cancellations a national debate has ensued over the censorship, nationalism, freedom of expression, and how the right wing operates its campaigns of intimidation and violence. Director Li Ying knew his film would be controversial, but perhaps he never expected it get to this point.
Shot over 10 years, Chinese director Li Ying’s examination of the dark side of the Japanese soul has recently been making the festival rounds. Premiering at Pusan to great buzz and reviews, Yasukuni moved on to Sundance and Berlin. In late March, it won the best documentary award at the Hong Kong International Festival. Hot off the festival circuit, it was scheduled to open in Japan in mid April, until the shitstorm hit.
In December, Ying and his staff at Dragon Films had begun to receive anonymous death threats. Taking some necessary precautions, including closing up and moving his Tokyo office, Ying continued working toward the theatrical release in Japan.
If death threats weren’t bad enough, troubles snowballed on March 12, when, in a unprecedented request, a number of lawmakers from the right wing Liberal Democratic Party requested a preview screening of the film. The LDP questioned the appropriateness of government a government grant of ¥75 million for what they perceived as an anti-Japanese movie. The thumbs down by the LDP was picked up by local tabloids and the manufactured controversy spread like wildfire. Spearheaded by historical revisionist and LDP stalwart, Tomomi Inada’s subtle, yet incendiary comments, the groundwork was set for rabid right wingers to harass theaters with threats of disruptive protests and violence. Inada said “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.” Inada herself is documented in the movie at the shrine’s 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender.
Within a few days, the Tokyo venues scheduled to screen the film cancelled the April 12 opening. A statement from T-Joy Cinema echoes similar statements from other theaters, saying “The film has been talked about so much that it may create trouble and we don’t want to cause inconvenience to the building’s tenants.” Intimidated by the possibility of trademark black panel trucks blaring nationalistic songs blocking the streets, right wing instigation, and the very real fear of violence toward customers and staff, the theaters caved.
Director Li, though, thinks that there may have been stronger political pressures to close down the opening of Yasukuni.
On April 2, Osaka’s Dai Nana Geijutsu Gekijo theater announced that it would screen the film as originally scheduled beginning on May 10. Atsushi Matsumura, owner of the Osaka theater, defiantly stated, “If screenings of the movie are cancelled across the nation, it sends out a message that anything unsavory can be stopped just by the threat of protest or harassment. Over the past few days, other theater owners throughout the country are taking a stand, joining the Osaka theater in keeping their commitments to screen the film. At last count, there are more than tewenty cinemas, from Hokkaido to Nagasaki that will screen Yasukuni in May. However, there are still no theaters in Tokyo that are willing to stand up to the right wingers.
And this concerns Li. “The Yasukuni shrine is in Tokyo. All the contradictions, all the conflicts it involves are in Tokyo, which is why the film has to be shown in the capital. The heart of all historical, religious, political problems is in Tokyo,” he says.
News broke last week with another assault on the film by officials of the Yasukuni Shrine stating that they had not given Li permission to shoot. They did. And after a meeting with an LDP politician, Naoji Kariya, the 90 year old swordsmith who is the main character highlighted in the film requested his scenes to be deleted from the film, even though Li insists that he signed a release. Nonetheless, Argo, the distributor put a hold on the release, pending new legal ramifications.
The story changes daily with politicians and pundits weighing in, statements of commitment or lack of from venue owners, and the continuing struggle of a filmmaker trying to get his work shown and discussed without pre-judgment and censorship taking the center stage. One hopes that Tokyoites will have the opportunity to see the Yasukuni for themselves
Originally published in Hot Splice, 04/23/2008