In case you haven’t heard of it until now (when it came out some months ago, a number of theaters received angry and threatening phone calls demanding they cancel the screening; this only served to add publicity, and the screenings went ahead), YASUKUNI talks about Yasukuni Shrine in Kudankita, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, a place for recording, enshrining, and praying for Japan’s war dead. The movie focusses upon how it has become a focal point for both the left and the right regarding Japan’s wartime past. One question raised is should people, including Class-A war criminals and ancestors of people (including former citizens of empire) who don’t want their relatives listed there, be enshirined, as former PM Koizumi put it, in paraphrase, “to honor their memory of sacrifice and pray that war never happens again”? And should politicians, in their official capacity (PM Koizumi and Tokyo Gov Ishihara both appear in the movie), worship at this shrine, and not fall foul of issues of the separation of church and state?
But those issues are interwoven into the human drama that is allowed to unfold upon the screen subtly. The arc of the movie watches Yasukuni-sponsored samurai-style swords (the object of worship, as they contain the spirits under State Shinto) being forged by a ninety-year-old master, who spends a lot of the movie not really answering questions (due to age or to avoidance, the viewer must decide), but who shows plenty of spark when creating swords and talking about their use (he’s admittedly aware that they are designed, through tests, to cut through bone etc.). The documentary does not have pointed Michael-Moore-style narration — it is a constant juxtaposition of images and scenes, and thus effectively (and properly) avoids charges of propagandizing. In fact, most of the dialog is from people on site themselves, with cinema verite camerawork capturing their speeches, their styles, their thoughts, their attitudes, and a lot of jingoism.
But it is the scenes that linger in memory:
The scenes of a fiery indigenous Taiwanese woman who wants her relatives disenshrined, and the Buddhist priest (who acts as interpreter) who similarly lost his father in the war and wants the same. Their requests are denied; the war dead are for the State to keep and honor, as it was in the Emperor’s name that they died.
The scene of an attention-seeking American real estate agent from Nevada (I say attention-seeking because he mentions twice how much he wishes Bush would come to Yasukuni so he could meet him) who holds up a sign in Japanese saying he supports PM Koizumi’s visits, along with an American flag, outside the Torii gate. He is first received with thanks for the support, then increasingly angry questions about whether the American flag should be here, then furious demands that he remove himself from the grounds because he’s not a real worshipper. Finally the police intervene tell him to take the flag down, and then turf him outside the entire grounds. The arc of the discussion demonstrates how even supporters get alienated.
The scene that stands out most for me is the 60th anniversary of the end of the war speeches (where Tokyo Gov Ishihara mysteriously hijacks a quote from Napoleon regarding China, which talks about a sleeping lion, and pastes it onto Japan, calling for Japan to wake up and rise). When they play the Kimigayo national anthem, two protestors with posters run out in front and disrupt the proceedings. At first escorted off the public view, once they get hustled off to the sidelines they’re knocked to the ground and roughed up by a crowd (one rightist kid grabs a protester by the neck and puts him in a chokehold; I feared for his well-being). Then after some feeble attempts to break them up, they’re pushed out by a crowd that, thinking they’re Chinese (it comes out later that at least one of them is not), screams over and over that they should go back to China. By the time one of them, face badly bloodied, gets to the police (who intervene as effectively as referees in pro wrestling matches), the police try to bundle him off into an ambulance and then, after he refuses, force him into a police car. The police do not visibly try to find out who assaulted him; they first check whether or not he’s Japanese, then try to whisk him away from the scene. My read: The police were there to keep the peace, but were working in favor of those holding the party, trying to keep people from spoiling it.
My take-home lesson from this movie:
Even though there will be violence on both Right and Left (although there were no scenes of leftist-instigated violence in the movie), the non-violent peace protestors (imagine the hypocrisy hay that would be made if somebody filmed the peaceniks assaulting the Rightists!) put themselves at a disadvantage. In the sense that violence is not an option for the non-violent segment of the Left. It remains an option, as witnessed in this movie, for the Right. There’s the fundamental difference. And unless you get enough people witnessing just how unfair a fight this is (one of the most fundamental elements for non-violent protest to work, as per King and Gandhi, is for everyone to *SEE* just how brutal one side is and become sympathetic towards the other), it’s just going to continue. I feel very lucky to have seen a movie which made me realize that, and recorded for all to see (what serendipitous camerawork!) just how mean and irrational the side that resorts to violence actually is.
In sum, go see YASUKUNI. It’s a job well done. Arudou Debito in Sapporo