Japanese cinemas bow out of showing film on war shrine

Times Staff Writers

A campaign of harassment by nationalists has led several cinemas to cancel screenings of an award-winning movie about Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial memorial that venerates Japan’s war dead and war criminals alike.

Five cinemas in Tokyo and Osaka have dropped plans to show the documentary “Yasukuni” beginning April 12, saying they feared for the safety of staff and patrons if they showed the film by Chinese director Li Ying.

His film addresses the question of Japanese amnesia about the nation’s wartime past by examining the clashing views about Yasukuni. Many Japanese regard the 19th century Tokyo shrine as the appropriate place to pray for the country’s 2.5 million war dead, whereas critics see it as a symbol of unapologetic militarism.


Both the director and the cinema owners said they had received threatening calls warning them against showing the film. Some of the theaters had been targeted by right-wing activists demonstrating in their signature black sound trucks, blasting nationalist slogans and tirades against the film at deafening volume through loudspeakers.

“The loud trucks came around the cinema and we consulted with the police, but they said it was not easy to arrest” the protesters, said Manabu Matsumoto of Humax Cinema, which runs a theater in Tokyo’s tony Ginza district. “We had to give up [on showing the film] because we could not guarantee the safety of our staff.”

The capitulation to intimidation has raised questions about the strength of Japan’s commitment to protecting constitutional guarantees of free expression. Politicians from the main parties have been tepid in their criticism of extremist violence, even as ultranationalists have used threats of protests to shut down public conferences in recent months.

A conference on the changing role of women in Japanese society was canceled last fall after organizers were threatened by right-wing groups claiming to be protecting traditional values. And the annual gathering of Japan’s teachers union, a longtime bane of ultranationalists, was canceled when a hotel chain reneged on a contract to play host to the event, citing fears of disruption for other guests.

So far, mainstream politicians have shown almost no inclination to ensure that “Yasukuni” is screened. Culture Minister Kisaburo Tokai said Tuesday that he regretted the cinema owners’ decision to cancel the screenings.

“It is too bad if pressure and harassment resulted in this kind of situation,” he said.

Yet many here say officials contributed to the backlash against the film. In March, a group of lawmakers demanded an advance screening of “Yasukuni,” ostensibly to determine whether its production was an appropriate use of public finds. The government contribution to the film’s financing was loudly denounced by politicians opposed to its message.


Critics contend that this opposition, propelled by elements of Japan’s conservative media establishment, sparked the animosity of right-wing extremists by creating an impression that the documentary was anti-Japanese. The Directors Guild of Japan issued a statement blaming the politicians for taking steps that “psychologically suppress filmmakers’ free and creative activities.”

“The politicians were the ones making sensational claims that this is an ‘ideological film’ and an ‘anti-Japanese’ movie, and it was their remarks that inflamed nationalist feelings,” said director Li, who has lived in Japan for 20 years.

“Yasukuni” arrives at a time when many Japanese filmmakers are taking a revisionist view of their country’s wartime conduct more pleasing to conservatives, such as last year’s “I Go to Die for You,” which romanticized the sacrifice of kamikaze pilots.

Li describes his film as an examination of selective memory and the central role the shrine plays in sustaining ambiguity about war guilt.

At the film’s core are the interspersed scenes of Yasukuni’s last living swordsmith as he cuts and polishes his last sword. Swords produced at Yasukuni during the war were used on battlefields by officers, and the movie underscores the discordance between the aesthetic beauty of the traditional blades and their function as weapons that in the worst cases were used to slaughter unarmed POWs.

“The Japanese remember only what is convenient,” Li said. “When they look at these swords now, they see them only as an art piece. They forget how they were used.”