Bottom Line: A penetrating documentary illustrating the complexity of Japan's war legacy.

Pusan International Film Festival

"Yasukuni," a documentary about the site of ongoing controversy sparked by Japanese state officials' visits to honor deceased Japanese soldiers, is the first of its kind. Instead of harping on disputed grievances like the Nanjing massacre or comfort women, the film hones in on the shrine itself: It traces its imperial lineage, unpeeling layers of mystique surrounding the shrine to show what actually still goes on in and outside its vicinity.

Likely to become a hotly debated film, its domestic distributor has plans to launch openings in Tokyo's major cinemas early next year. Simultaneous releases in China and Korea are in the pipeline.

Director Li Ying ("2H," "Mona Lisa") has been a resident of Japan since 1989. Hence he shows considerable tact in handling extensively researched material and sensitivity to Japanese culture. He reveals the little known fact that it is not tombstones or plaques that are worshipped at Yasukuni, but a sword enshrined within its inner sanctum. Known as yasukunitou, it consecrates (as of 2004), 2,466,532 "heroic souls," 80% of whom died in World War II. This elucidates why contention about commemorating Class A war criminals (already merged with other souls in a Shinto ritual) is not as clear-cut as it seems.
The film's leitmotif is the Japanese blade, pertaining to an exploration of bushido ethics, Shinto philosophy, war ideology and their mark on the national psyche. The prologue introduces 90-year-old Naoji Kariya, the only surviving bladesmith who helped forge 8,100 yasukunitou wrought within the shrine's premises, then shipped to the front till 1945.

The entire film is punctuated by excerpts of Kariya making his last blade, eliciting respect for an artisan's single-minded dedication to his craft. Yet his reticence and inscrutable smiles to questions on the historical implications of his vocation become the film's most telling moments.

From this premise, the film branches out to present multilayered perspectives on the subject from predominantly Japanese voices. Shot fly-on-the-wall style over 10 years, before most of the grounds became off limits to media, rare footage display a hub of dramatic human interaction. With the absence of voiceovers, personal judgment gives way to candid airing of opinions from militants and pacifists, descendents of "war criminals" stigmatized by their own society and an alliance of Koreans, Taiwan aboriginals, Okinawans and a Buddhist priest petitioning for discharge of their ancestors' spirits.

Compact editing by Li and Yuji Oshige makes for a compelling denouement montage of archival footage of kendo practice segueing into more troubling images all set to Gorecki's elegiac Third Symphony, composed on the 50th anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland.

Dragon Films Inc/Beijing Film Academy Youth Studio/Beijing Zhongjun Film Inc.
Director: Li Ying
Producers: Zhang Yuhui, Zhang Huijun, Hu Yun
Executive producers: Zhang Huijun, Hu Yun, Jiang Xuanbin, Li Ying; Directors of photography: Yasuhiro Hotta, Li Ying
Sound: Takayuki Nakamura
Co-producers: Tetsujiro Yamagami, Li Hongyu, Xu Xiangyun, Bobby K S Wan, Huang Haibo
Editor: Yuji Oshige
Kariya Naoji
Sugawara Ryuken
Gaojin Sumei (Chiwas Ari)

Running time -- 123 minutes
No MPAA rating