I guess topics which are taboo, or films that have their bans lifted, will more than likely have its audience base automatically built from the curiosity arising from its background, wondering on what grounds and rationale that such a film got made or banned in the first place. The Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo had its fair share of publicity coming from ex Japanese prime minister Koizumi's high profile visits to the shrine for worship, much to the disgust of neighbours China and Korea, because enshrined within those grounds, are some of the tried war criminals of WWII, whom to most in Asia, are not deemed to be martyrs, having started a campaign on aggression in the region.
Depending on which camp you're standing in, there are two sides of the coin even from within a homogeneous society like Japan itself – those who find it no big deal for their prime minister to visit the shrine at his own personal capacity, and those who find it wrong to do so. On a macro level, while it is easy to condemn those who partook in the war, from personal stories just like that in any society, there will always be those who have to do it against their will, and even some touching stories coming from the surviving siblings that their brothers get sent away, being quite clear that they'll never come back ever again.
As a documentary, there is no lack of an educational value in it. There were plenty of nuggets of information for the military history buffs, and some of the things I learnt, was how Yasukuni itself has so much importance and relevance to Imperial Japan. For starters, I learnt that swords have an indelible connection to the army and to the shrine, given that sword forgers from the shrine made their swords on those very grounds, and officers at the frontline are bestowed one each. This equates to quality swords running in the thousands being made. Of course, these swords are infamous for being tools used to behead countless of victims, and some of these atrocities get publicized as bravery contests amongst officers.
And the significance of the sword is so important, that within the shrine, the object of worship is none other than one Yasukuni sword which is used to represent the more than 2 million souls who were lost in the war, fighting for the Emperor, which of course amongst that figure, things are not all that clear, with various groups lobbying for things such as removal of names and enshrining of their ancestors, because they were either forced to conscript, or some aren't even Japanese to begin with. It's hard to imagine – 2 millions souls – captured into one single sword, and if this was a martial arts world we live in, that would be one heck of a powerful sword.
But as a movie, there were a lot more to be desired. Granted when dealing with topics of controversy, answers during interviews are not bound to be forthcoming, given the director's attempt to elicit some candid remarks from the sole remaining Yasukuni sword forger who's already into his 90s. Interviews with his subjects also seem to be more from the man on the street, and thus dilutes some of the expected quality in the answers, which some might allude to talk that you'll hear from coffeeshops, some of which might be entertaining for its point blank accusations, such as the British National Museum being a storage space for goods plundered all over the world. I chuckled at this comment because this is not the first time I'm hearing it, as I've heard it before from a Brit on a tour telling all tourists that same thing as well (he's a tour guide by the way).
Most of the time, the camera lingers in and around the grounds of the shrine on August 15, since it's the day designated as a remembrance, and you have various military groups coming on site to pay their respects, as will other civil groups and protestors as well, thus making it fertile grounds for opposing members of the groups to come into blows, verbally or physically, in trying to force their viewpoints on the other. One thing's for sure though, that groups are passionate in their beliefs, and no words get minced in their shout-outs.
However, the film doesn't go beyond what's shown on the surface. It seems quite contented in capturing events of the day, like a newsreel, but without any further input on how and why such events, shots and the inclusion of such scenes mattered. There was an extended scene involving an American who was flag waving (the stars and stripes) on the grounds to mixed reactions from the Japanese people, as well as dwelling on incidents such as the Taiwanese indigenous groups wanting to reclaim the souls of their ancestors. But alas further interviews to pick the minds of these folks were not done – maybe the request to interview them was unsuccessful?
So while it had some ingredients to make it more than worthwhile to sit through 2 hours of a film revolving around the Yasukuni shrine and movement, its presentation could have been a lot stronger. The narrative got quite messy and all over the place, never having a primary focus, but flitted around as and when it found convenience. I felt the ending was rather week because of its reliance on commonly seen archival stock images and videos, but on the whole, an impressive effort and courage to explore something controversial and touchy even until today.