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Right-winger gives controversial ‘Yasukuni’ stamp of approval

Mitsuhiro Kimura of Issui-kai
Mitsuhiro Kimura of Issui-kai

TOKYO (TR) – The leader of the right-wing group Issui-kai has given his approval to the controversial film “Yasukuni,” Chinese director Li Ying’s documentary on Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine that multiple theaters in Japan have refused to screen.

“The movie is very well done,” said Issui-kai’s Mitsuhiro Kimura in an exclusive interview from his office in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward for The Tokyo Reporter. “The director’s feeling has been shown very clearly.”

The generally non-narrated film contains multiple interviews, footage of the Imperial Army rampaging through Asia during World War II, and images of the annual festivities that take place on August 15 (the anniversary of the war’s conclusion.) within the shrine’s compound, where the souls of roughly 2.5 million soldiers, airmen, and seamen are honored. To many Asian governments, more pertinent is the enshrinement of 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Amongst the throng on that day are hundreds of uniformed members of right-wing groups (uyoku dantai), who clog nearby streets with their massive soundtrucks and perform flamboyant maneuvers inside the gates just before praying at the foot of the shrine’s facade. (Kimura’s Issui-kai group is considered shin uyoku, or new right, for its rather moderate views on a variety of issues, including sympathetic treatment for Koreans and Taiwanese who fought for the Imperial Army.)

Theaters feared that protests by soundtruck-riding, right-wing groups, who see the film as containing “anti-Japan” sentiments, would have resulted in an unruly and disruptive scene for neighboring businesses. Kimura instead worries about a violation of freedom of speech.

“The government seems intent on avoiding the problem,” said Kimura, whose office wall proudly displays a large photo of famed author Yukio Mishima, whose teachings are the basic principles of his group. “This should be a big issue but it is growing smaller due to social pressure. This is unfortunate.”

A group of 40 ruling Liberal Democratic Party members, who previewed the film in March, questioned the reasoning for supplying a 7.5-million-yen subsidy by the government-affiliated Japan Arts Council, with one lawmaker describing the film’s content as “propaganda” on the part of China. By the end of the month, five theaters in Tokyo and Osaka had scrapped plans to show the film. Since then distributor Argo Films has secured engagements with 20 other theaters.

In April, over 160 lawmakers make a pilgrimage to the shrine for a spring festival. In recent years, similar visits by then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi have escalated tension between Japan and China and South Korea.

Kimura, who last month helped organize a special viewing of the 123-minute film for other right-wing groups at the Loft theater in Shinjuku ward’s Kabukicho district, concedes that there are troubling images which could upset some viewers. “There is one scene,” he said, “in which a sword-wielding Japanese soldier is atop a horse and killing civilians. I think that will be controversial.”

The film received praise overseas, where it played at at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the Berlin Film Festival in February, and the Busan Film Festival last year. At the Hong Kong Film Festival in March, it won the award for best documentary.

Kimura and helmer Li, who is a 19-year resident of Japan, have met and discussed various political issues (including relations between China and Tibet). For Kimura, he wonders about the modern meaning of Yasukuni. He asks: Is the shrine’s purpose for prayer or to make people angry?

“The image is becoming strange and troubling,” he said. “To Japanese people, the message was always ‘We are happily living because of what they (soldiers) did for us.’ But that is not really the case anymore.”

As for the film, Kimura believes it is time for people to open their eyes to new ideas. “I would like to speak loudly: everyone watch this film. If people can calm down and think clearly,” he said, “maybe we can all see something that we haven’t seen before.”

Note: ‘Yasukuni’ is currently playing at Cine Amuse in Shibuya, Tokyo.