Yasukuni – funding the controversial Sino-Japanese film about war

FILM: The funding of Yasukuni, the contentious documentary film recently re-released to coincide with China’s inaugural Memorial Day for the Nanjing Massacre in the 1930s, was a bitter experience. MTF asks director Li Ying why…

The funding of Yasukuni, the controversial feature documentary made by award-winning Chinese director Li Ying in 2008, was as bitter-sweet an experience as the reasons for his presence at the international premiere in London on 12 December.

Yasukuni is a heart-felt examination of the sacred 19th century Yasukuni Shrine installed in Tokyo to remember those who died for Japan in military conflict.

It also happens to honour World War II Japanese soldiers convicted as war criminals for their brutality against Chinese civilians in the Nanjing Massacre that started 13 December 1937.

More than 70 years later, China is demanding an apology from Japan, while Japanese nationalists insist the facts behind the killings, also known as the Rape of Nanjing, are either untrue or exaggerated. An infuriated China and some foreign allies even criticised current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for visiting the shrine, with its links to the massacre, in December last year.

And to confirm China has no intention of forgetting, the country observed the National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims for the first time on 13 December this year.

The need for a peaceful end to the resulting political enmity between the two countries is at the heart of Li’s film, he said. Although originally released in Japan six years ago, it is being re-issued to coincide with the Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II next year.

China-born Li, who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, also experienced antagonism when he tried to raise funds for the film. Speaking to MediaTainment Finance at London’s BAFTA, the home of British filmmakers, he explained why he financed the feature that took 10 years to complete.

“It took about eight years to film and another two years for the post production,” Li said. “When I started it, I wasn’t even sure I would finish because investors thought the topic was too sensitive and no one wanted to co-produce it.”

It was particularly frustrating because an already successful career in Japan meant he was used to having the funds in place before he started any production. “The making of this film was different from what I was normally used to, when I had all the finance in place,” he added.

Eventually, additional funding for post-production came from Japan (the Japan Arts Fund via the Japan Arts Council), China (University of Beijing Film Academy) and South Korea (the Asian Cinema Fund via the Busan International Film Festival).

The film itself leaves a bitter-sweet visual taste. It is an uncompromising reportage featuring interviews with both supporters and opponents of the Yasukuni Shrine and the ideologies behind it. There is a poignant dialogue about the rights and wrongs of war with the last surviving Yasukuni sword maker.

So why the re-release? “We need more understanding and knowledge about what happened during the war. In Japan, there are some right-wing politicians who think the film is provocative. In recent times, there has been a resurgence of nationalism in both countries,” he argued. “But these issues are a legacy of war, a post-war syndrome. The majority of Japanese are kind and peace-loving; it is only the politicians who are narrow minded.”

Yasukuni is being screened in major UK cities until 9 January. It was endorsed by award-winning UK documentary maker Phil Agland MBE, who reminded the audience at the BAFTA premiere that the UK and China signed a landmark film co-production treaty in April this year. And the London Chinatown Chinese Association helped support the UK premiere.