'Yasukuni' hangs in limbo

Feature films get China release while documentary waits

Updated: April 20, 2009, 2:30 AM ET

BEIJING -- On the eve of China's release of two major feature films about the Nanjing Massacre, a third film -- a documentary about the legacy of that black mark on Sino-Japanese history -- is stuck in censorship limbo.

Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" and Florian Gallenberger's "John Rabe" will hit Chinese theaters over the next few weeks with fictionalized (and Beijing-approved) versions of the bloodbath 72 years ago. But director Li Ying's documentary "Yasukuni," about a Tokyo shrine to Japanese soldiers -- including participants in the execution of 300,000 Chinese in 1937 -- is still waiting for the okay from China's Film Bureau.

"We've been asking for a year and they haven't said no, but they haven't said yes either," Li said over a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe here.

"Yasukuni" did well, considering its limited release, at Japan's boxoffice, selling 130,000 tickets over six months in 2008, and last week was honored with a Japanese audience award recognizing it as a film of great social impact.

It is the documentary's potential impact -- the fear in China that it could jeopardize a recent thaw in long-icy Sino-Japanese affairs -- that has stalled a distribution license here, said Li, who hails from south China but has lived in Japan for 20 years.

"The delay is related to a change in relations," said Li, adding that he now feels like a "drifter" living "on the edge" between the two cultures.

Relations between the Asian neighbors were helped by current Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso's refusal to visit the Yasukuni shrine as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did so frequently and publicly from 2001-06, angering China's leaders.

But, Li said, "Nanjing and Yasukuni should not be a government-to-government conversation but a people-to-people conversation."

Li has suffered the impact of his film directly. He fled Japan after receiving death threats, returning only to visit the Japanese lawyers defending him in a case he must face in May in a Tokyo court. Right-wing Japanese charge that he violated their privacy by filming annual rituals at the shrine.

While the Nanjing-focused features coming out soon are set in the past, Li's documentary reminds viewers that some of the soldiers from that dark era, are alive today and remain unapologetic.

In the spring of 2005, when a Japanese history textbook whitewashed the country's past militarism, Chinese hurled rocks and bottles at Japan's embassy in Beijing and vandalized shops and restaurants selling Japanese goods and food.

Two years later, China overtook the U.S. as Japan's largest trading partner and the neighbor nations' commerce grew 12.5% in 2008 to $266.4 billion. But Sino-Japanese trade fell sharply in the fourth quarter and is expected to decline further this year.

It is against this backdrop of economic uncertainty that Li's sales agent, Alexandra Sun of Hong Kong's the Film Library sums up why she thinks "Yasukuni" has not been cleared to screen in China: "Nobody wants to be responsible if anything goes wrong."

"Yasukuni," which has sold to France, opens in South Korea on Aug. 12 and is scheduled to screen a few days later at New York's Film Forum. The Aug. 15 screening falls on the anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.