Sundance: Yasukuni

There is a good 50 minute film somewhere in this 123 minute doucumentary on the Yasukuni shrine in Japan (wikipedia entry). In addition to a vigorous edit, someone should explain to the director that “cinéma vérité” does not mean camera shake so bad that you have to close your eyes, following a shot to the end whether anything happens or not, forgetting to focus, and never wiping the rain off the camera lens. It rains a lot at Yasukuni.

Yasukuni is a shrine to those who have died fighting for Japan. Their names are recorded at the shrine and a sword represents their glorious deaths. In World War II, so many Japanese died at sea and in places where remains could not be recovered that Yasukuni is the only place for families and comrades to visit them. The closest thing in the US is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In 1978, Yasukuni recorded the names of war criminals from WWII and became controversial. The emperor stopped his yearly visit, and the shrine became associated with an inflexible nationalism.

There are good parts in the documentary and you do learn a lot about Yasukuni. Here are some of the parts that connected with me.

Watching the last remaining sword maker at Yasukuni make a sword was good. The interviews with him were less satisfactory, especially the one where we watch this 90 year old man think about something for two minutes then not say anything. Yeesh.

A protester outside Yasukuni is gathering signatures to ask Mainichi Shinbun (a major quality newspaper) to retract a story about her grandfather taking part in a “beheading contest” between Japanese officers. This was in China, beheading prisoners with Japanese swords, perhaps even swords made at Yasukuni. The footage is followed by a whole series of contemporary reports from newspapers, excitedly following the contest with photos of the participants.

Prime Minister Koizumi defending his visit to the shrine in a press conference. He is soft spoken and direct, with none of the condescension I hear from our president. He is still a politician, saying he “can’t understand” the Chinese objections when clearly he can understand them, but his is a politician I can stand to listen to.

A veteran visiting the shrine at night, in heavy rain. He marches up, unsheathes his sword, salutes, resheathes it, and marches away.

Two women sitting on a bench talking about Yasukuni. One of them describes the letters that boys would give to their sisters before leaving for the front. They would write, “we will meet again at Yasukuni”.

A final montage of historical footage: soldiers training with swords, a kamikaze pilot placing his sword into his cockpit, an officer leading a charge with his sword, Hirohito visiting Yasukuni. Even this montage is too long, but it is exactly the right ending for the film.

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