A critically acclaimed movie about Yasukuni Shrine, Japan's controversial memorial to its war dead, has been pulled from Tokyo cinemas amid a campaign of right-wing intimidation and death threats against the distributors. Ten years in the making, Yasukuni explores the shrine's role as a rallying point for the Japanese far right and its tortured relationship with Japan's undigested war history.
Among the 2.46 million war dead enshrined at Yasukuni are more than 1,000 convicted and executed war criminals, including the men who led Japan's brutal pillage of Asia. A museum on the shrine's grounds audaciously rewrites history: teenage suicide bombers (Kamikaze) are heroes, America is the enemy and the Emperor, supposedly reduced to mortal status after Second World War, is still a deity.
The Chinese director Li Ying, who moved to Tokyo in 1989 and speaks fluent Japanese, rejects claims that he is anti-Japanese but says Yasukuni symbolises a "disease of the spirit" in Japan and describes his movie as a "love-letter" to the Japanese people. "This love-letter may be hard to watch, but that's the form my love takes."
Japanese conservatives have branded the movie "Chinese propaganda" and condemned a decision by Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs to award Li a 7.5 million yen (£37,000) grant. With criticism growing along with the threat of violence from ultra-right-wingers, four Tokyo cinemas have pulled out of an official launch on 12 April. The documentary, which was applauded at the Sundance Festival in January, is unlikely to ever flicker on Japan's movie screens.
The campaign against the movie is led by the powerful Liberal Democrat (LDP) lawmaker Tomomi Inada, who says it is "political propaganda". "I felt the movie's ideological message was that Yasukuni was a device to drive people into an aggressive war," she told the Asahi newspaper, but denied she wanted it banned. "I have no interest in limiting freedom of expression or restricting the showing of the movie. My doubt is about the movie's political intentions."
Ultra-right-wingers had threatened retribution against anyone who handled the movie. Anonymous bloggers posted contact details for the distribution company, the Japan Arts Council and every theatre showing it. Death threats were issued against the production company, Dragon Films, forcing it to move its Tokyo offices.
Li's cinematic gaze is unflinching, and sometimes disturbing. In one scene, filmed on 15 August 2005, the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender, two young Japanese anti-Yasukuni protesters are beaten and chased from the shrine's grounds by right-wingers who yell at them to "go back to China". Archive shots show Japanese soldiers using Yasukuni swords, forged in the grounds from 1933-45, to decapitate Chinese victims.