Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Yasukuni" Shown in Osaka

Documentary "YASUKUNI" screened at Osaka theater
(Kyodo News, May 10, 2008, 10:29 AM)

A movie theater in central Osaka began screening the controversial documentary film "YASUKUNI" on Saturday, becoming the first theater to do so in the Kansai area of western Japan.

The Seventh Art Theater in Yodogawa Ward will run the film by Chinese Director Li Ying till June 6. Depending on viewer turnout, the showing will be extended, it said.

Preliminary Report:

I was among the first people in Osaka to see Yasukuni this morning. It was my intention to get there well before the first 9:30 AM showing to see/photograph any trouble that might have been brewing near or inside the theater. I thought I might be lucky enough to get a ticket for the second screening at 11:55 AM or maybe even tomorrow.

When I arrived the only brewing trouble seemed to be coming from the media and its traveling circus outside the theater. I started taking some pictures when a theater staff member asked if I was there to see the film. I replied yes and was told to proceed on the other side of a rope. As I entered the customer line, the media swooped down on the foreigner.

No asking of permission, no acceptance of my claimed language difficulties, boom! I had two TV cameras shoved in my face and was being asked why I was there to see the movie. I replied that I was interested in Japanese politics. Why? I was asked. The questions got longer and longer and I felt as if they were attempting to put words into my mouth. Finally I politely said I was done. I turned around and there were more reporters and cameras aimed at my face, looking to get their shot. So I started taking pictures of them.

Disappointed reporters and cameramen turn away from the visual anthropologist.

I was ushered into an elevator and up to the 6th floor. I was asked not to take photographs. It seemed that I had three choices of tickets for the day: 1) a standing room only ticket for the 9:30 show, 2) a ticket for a special hall set up on the fourth floor for the 9:30 show, or 3) a ticket for the 11:55 show. I chose number 2.

The main theater on the 6th floor had about 130 viewers I was told. On the 4th floor in a large hall belonging to a Chinese restaurant a special screen and speakers were set up. About 100 people viewed the film there.

This photo is of the hall on the 4th floor set up to accommodate excess viewers. A few people were taking photographs so I quickly snapped this one. The hall quickly filled up before the film began.

There were many staff people ushering customers here and there. There weren't any uniformed police but there were some plain clothed security guards. Two sat in the rear of the hall; they were older men with scars and quite frankly, scary-looking. Before the film began, two more security guards came in and sat on each side in the front of the hall. They had earphones in their ears and handguns under their jackets.

The atmosphere was odd and tense. I felt as if I were at some illegal gathering... Many people seemed to come by themselves. There wasn't a whole lot of interaction between the members of the audience except for a group of older people who sat in the front of the hall. They all seemed to know each other; eventually one woman started passing out flyers for a "Viva! Cuba X Japan Fiesta" on May 20. The woman made a special effort to make sure I got a flyer. I was truly among a hotbed of radical Japanese.

After the film I was able to buy a film program/study guide (700 yen) and talk with theater staff members a bit. I waited my turn to take the elevator and was once again greeted by the media.

I was still processing the film in my mind, so when the microphone was jammed in my face again I said, "No comment..." More disappointed media. But other Japanese people were there to give their comments. I felt this was more appropriate anyway. This is a Japanese issue; why was the media swooping down on a foreigner to get his opinion?

So what is my opinion of the film? I will offer a few brief comments.

Overall, I felt as though I really didn't learn anything new from the film. The film portrayed, often times in a jerky and blurry video style, radical right wing activities at Yasukuni, but these were public events that seemed to demand an audience and documentation. They were intended to be public events, so I don't see how real nationalists would have a problem with these scenes. Perhaps some right leaning politicians might feel like they would want to hide such activities to an international audience...

In one scene, war veterans paraded into the shrine and prayed. The movie poster (seen below along with the movie program and my ticket stubs) highlights one of these public events.

What is odd about the movie poster is the position of the man's arms. What is the meaning of this man's gesture?

Actually, the gesture is captured/photographed at the wrong moment. The man holds his hands apart before bringing them together for a Shinto prayer-clap. The photo should have been of the prayer/clap itself. The hands outstretched taken out of context is suggesting some other meaning.

Li Ying focuses on a sword maker and much of the footage of the sword being made is quite beautiful. I suppose it is a juxtaposition of a beautiful art resulting in a deadly weapon. Li Ying at times seems a little aggressive when interviewing the sword maker. At times the sword maker seems to not know the answer, or perhaps not want to answer, some more politically motivated questions.

Overall, the film is interesting and might be educational to people who don't know much about the issues surrounding Yasukuni shrine. But one has to wonder if such people would come out to see this film anyway. All of the sensational protests and media coverage gave the film much more attention that it would have otherwise gleaned. A colleague has recorded and given me several clips of news coverage of the film and the screenings in Tokyo and Osaka. They all tend to show the more violent scenes from the film. This is yet another example of the media over-blowing an issue; but it also serves to give Li Ying free advertising for his film.

Does the film deserve all the controversy it has received? In the end, probably not. But the film certainly deserved to be made, and it deserves to be seen. Do check it out and offer your opinions here at VAOJ. What do you think of the film? How does the film serve to help us in out understanding of the visual anthropology of Japan?

(Special thanks to JH. Preliminary report written 5/10; additional text and photos added on 5/12.)

...and more Yasukuni articles trickle in.

Yasukuni: The Stage for Memory and Oblivion. A Dialogue between Li Ying and Sai Yoichi
Translated by John Junkerman, this discussion between "foreign" filmmakers in Japan appears in the latest edition of Japan Focus.

Link to "Dialogue"

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