BUSAN, South Korea — In 1997, Chinese director Li Ying moved to Japan to document ordinary Japanese speaking their minds inside Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine. Therein, Shinto Buddhists believe, lie the souls of 2.4 million dead, merged inside a ceremonial sword. Of course, the sword — made at the temple — was the tool of more than a few Japanese officers who ordered the pillage of much of Asia in the 1930s and were later deemed Class A war criminals. Li, 44, grew up in South China, well after the communists repelled Japan, but his father told him about being forced to eat chalk for refusing to speak Japanese to the invaders in the embattled north. Li told The Hollywood Reporter Asia Editor Jonathan Landreth what it was like to be afraid of the subject of his own film.
The Hollywood Reporter: Were you trying to explain that worshipers at Yasukuni, including Japan’s former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, worship a concept, not the individuals absolved by that concept?
Li Ying: Yes. I wanted to give the audience the chance to see the sword the Japanese worship as the symbol of the concept in a new light. I wanted to give the space to viewers to see it for what it is.
THR: Who’s the old man at the film’s center?
Li: Naoji Kariya, the temple swordsmith. He made his last sword last year. I hope my film shows that, to understand the temple, you have to have a greater understanding of the artisan and the tradition.
THR: Why address a subject so raw to both China and Japan?
Li: I wanted to concentrate people’s memories about this big historical stage. Different nations have different memories.
THR: What’s the film about?
Li: “Yasukuni” is about memory, but also about forgetfulness. I use footage from other war movies, to put the memories in front of the Japanese viewers. But the the swordsmith is the character of forgetfulness.
THR: Is he the only one forgetting?
Li: A lot of wars are started by counties who think they are right. Memory is selective. This is a human problem. In the temple, people think all of the dead are heroes, but they have forgotten the pain these heroes caused all around Asia.
THR: Japan came to understand the emperor was mortal only when his voice was heard in a rare radio broadcast surrendering to America. Does the swordsmith still view Hirohito as God?
Li: For him, listening to Hirohito’s speeches, he sees that he’s not a God, but he doesn’t see that (the war) was a mistake. It’s deeply ingrained. It’s just there, deeply ingrained in the Japanese spirit.
THR: What was it like to capture Japanese worshipers beating protestors they took to be Chinese?
Li: I hid behind the camera. I hoped they wouldn’t notice that I was the only Chinese there. (The protestors’) faces were bloodied.
THR: Where did you get the startling historical footage?
Li: I got a lot from (broadcaster) NHK, but a lot more from private collections. I bought it. A lot of the footage in “Nanking” (the 2007 Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman documentary) came from me.
THR: Will “Yasukuni” show in Japan?
Li: I have a distributor there, but (broadcaster) NHK won’t touch this film. Nobody there would cooperate. My Japanese friends who helped with the film would not allow me to use their real names in the credits.
THR: Does the film encourage forgiveness?
Li: It’s a human instinct. Even after somebody attacks you. People don’t want to remember things that give them pain, they want to remember things that help them relax. This is a big difference between East and West. In Christianity, they believe in confession and rebirth, but in Asia we care more about face. This is something we could we could learn from the West. In Japan, the emperor is their face. But this is their problem.