'Yasukuni' team dealing with death threats


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BERLIN -- The director and producers of a documentary about Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine have received multiple death threats from right-wing groups in Japan that want to prevent the movie's local release.

Japan's Dragon Films has decided to move its Tokyo offices and are taking steps to protect its staff after anonymous death threats against the company, its personnel and Li Ying, the Chinese-born director of "Yasukuni."

"The threats began about two months ago, when we started press screenings of the movie in Japan," the director told The Hollywood Reporter in Berlin, where "Yasukuni" is screening in the Berlin International Film Festival's Forum sidebar. "The threats have gotten worse and worse as we have gotten closer to the Japanese theatrical release of the film in April."

Li spent 10 years researching and shooting his documentary, which looks at the controversy surrounding the shrine, which honors Japan's war dead, including a handful of top war criminals. For many, the site is a symbol of Japan's militaristic past, and it has become a rallying point for the far right.

"Yasukuni" was a hot seller at the Pusan International Film Festival in October and received rave reviews when it screened at Sundance last month.

Li said the Japanese embassy in Berlin has expressed its concern following the threats. Ulrich Gregor, the founder and former director of the Berlinale Forum, provided some moral support Wednesday, meeting with Li and telling the director to "not be afraid, just go ahead and do it (release the film)."

Gregor compared Li's position to that of German directors in the 1960s who turned their cameras on the dark history of the Nazi period.

"It isn't easy, but you have to confront the past and examine the past to know who you are," Gregor said. "It is never too late."

"I think Japan could learn a lot from how Germany has dealt with its war past," Li said. "In Japan the government is still very ambiguous about the war. Internationally, they admit responsibility, but within Japan they continue to honor those who committed the war crimes."

Li said he hopes his movie will spark discussion in Japan about the Yasukuni Shrine and Japan's role in World War II.

"I hope my film will help cure what I think of as the postwar syndrome," Li said. "It's a sickness, this ambiguity towards the people responsible for the war. I hope my film can help cure this syndrome. I think it will be good for the health of the Japanese nation."

While he is taking precautions to protect himself and his team, Li said he is going ahead with the film's Japanese release through distributor Nai Entertainment.

"I have spent 10 years making this movie," he said. "The issues in the film are key to many of the problems Japan faces in dealing with the war and dealing with the rest of Asia. Compared to that (my personal safety) is unimportant."