The Yasukuni Shinto Shrine in Tokyo is said to house nearly 2.5 million souls who perished in service to Japan during World War II. Considering the spotty records of many of those consecrated, the memorial inspires virulently mixed emotions among the living. So it’s only appropriate that Li Ying’s years-in-the-making documentary would come off comparably double-edged.
Part tribute and part critique, Li necessarily filmed the bulk of Yasukuni with a clandestine, handheld DV camera. This results in an unfortunately ugly visual palette, yet it also allows for more or less unguarded interactions with the varied groups of people (nationalists, tourists, politicians, protestors) who visit the memorial on a daily basis. Li lets these sequences play out well past the point of discomfort—the film is a trying yet worthwhile sit, not only for the information it relates, but for the sensations it elicits.
The shrine is fraught with unrelenting tension, something Li counterpoints by interweaving more tonally placid interview segments with Kariya Naoji, the last surviving Yasukuni swordsmith. Naoji is most alive when plying his trade; when pressed about his memories, he stays predominantly silent, a blissful smile on his face. It’s Yasukuni’s key image: The convolutions of history have been lost to old age. All that remains is an instinctual need to serve an empire long in decline.