by Alex Jackson Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo dedicated to the spirits of soldiers who died serving the Emperor of Japan. Included within the 2,466,532 names are 27,863 Taiwanese, 21,181 Koreans, and, most significantly, 1,068 convicted war criminals. The shrine is a centre of controversy for many Asians, some of whom feel their ancestors were forced to serve the Emperor and thus wouldn't want to be listed. Others could never endorse a shrine that features, for example, the names of Mukai Toshiaki and Noda Takeshi, the two officers who participated in a beheading contest during the massacre at Nanking. Still, the shrine is held in high regard among many Japanese. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited it annually, a move that severely damaged Japanese relations with China and Korea. This constant opposition has inspired many hardcore Japanese fundamentalists, such as a group of Nanking deniers, to congregate at the shrine, where they throw their own counter-protests. Director Li Ying, born in China and living in Japan, regards Yasukuni with a curious ambivalence. He's not objective, per se--he's subjective but cold. It seems that his joint identification with both the Chinese and Japanese keeps him from wanting to take sides. The centrepiece of Yasukuni the documentary is Ying's extensive interview with an elderly sword-maker, who made the very swords Toshiaki and Takeshi used in their beheading contest. Treating this craftsman with a great deal of warmth, Ying gently teases out how the sword-maker feels about Koizumi visiting the Yasukuni shrine. His nervous response is that Koizumi was merely honouring the dead soldiers and praying there will never be another war--and strangely enough, I found myself unable to come up with a lucid counterpoint to this. Reflect that war criminals constitute less than 0.1% of the names and you can see how the Yasukuni shrine might be regarded admirably. Yasukuni is a dull film, slow-paced and with a rather muted colour palette. This has the curious effect of giving everything a certain pall of death. Ying doesn't regard the fundamentalists with anger as much as a slight sense of pity. The Japan they're trying to resurrect appears to be dead; I think they're trying to reclaim a piece of the Japanese identity that is gone forever. The very last shot is of the Tokyo cityscape (the first time we've really seen it in the film), and it provides a fascinating context for everything that preceded it. In the face of increasing urbanization, the Japan of the past--militarism and all--has essentially become obsolete.