BEIJING (Reuters) - An elderly Japanese swordmaker painstakingly forges his final masterpiece in the opening sequence of “Yasukuni”, Chinese documentary filmmaker Li Ying’s exploration of a controversial Tokyo shrine.
The enigmatic swordmaker, Naoharu Kariya, is the last craftsman at a workshop that forged special swords for Japanese military officers and for devotees to offer at the Yasukuni shrine, which honors millions of Japanese war dead and is seen by many in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
In Li’s film, Kariya’s sword becomes like the shrine itself, a ritual of honor, beauty and death.
Yasukuni is believed to entomb the spirits of soldiers who died fighting for Japan, including some who were executed by the victorious Allies as war criminals.
Visits to the shrine by Japan’s previous prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, infuriated Chinese and Koreans who say that Japan has never properly apologized for the invasion and occupation of its neighbors during the Second World War.
“When I started, no one was paying attention to this,” said Li, who has been quietly filming at the shrine for over a decade.
The film’s release coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanking, when Japanese troops invading China’s then-capital killed about 142,000 people, according to Allied estimates after the war.
As the invading Japanese army marched on Nanking, soldiers decapitated people using traditional swords similar to the one made by Li’s swordmaker, according to wartime accounts.
Li, who was born in China and has lived in Japan for 17 years, said his interest in the Yasukuni shrine was stirred long before it attained international notoriety.
“I was watching a film about Nanking at a seminar in Japan and when it came to the scene where soldiers raised the Japanese flag over the city, people in the audience applauded and started singing along with the anthem,” Li recalled.
“I was shocked and puzzled, and could not help but wonder why after so many years, they still have such strong feelings... and how different people’s conceptions are about the war between the two countries.”
The film follows Japanese veterans who believe their nation doesn’t honor its war dead enough, as well as young Japanese protesters beaten by worshippers at the shrine.
“I make Yasukuni like a stage, and all these people reveal themselves upon it,” explained Li.
Taiwanese, Koreans and Okinawans who demand the return of their ancestors’ spirit tablets from the shrine also appear.
“The shrine is a very strange place, with a weird atmosphere. A lot of misunderstandings and nationalist passions are all entangled there,” Li said.
Li plans to show his film throughout Japan this fall and winter, and has applied for a permit to broadcast in China.
“I believe there will be no problem (in getting the permit),” he said. “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if this film can be shown in Japan and South Korea, but not China? The best would be if we could show it in all three at once.”
Li’s film was made with assistance and funding from Japan and Korea, while post-production support came from the Beijing Film Academy and a private Chinese production house.
The soft-spoken documentary filmmaker shies from polemics, allowing his subjects to speak for themselves and his audience to draw their own conclusions.
“I did not shoot the film to be anti-Japan — quite the contrary, this is my love letter to Japan. Who else would spend so many years doing what even a Japanese hasn’t done?”