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The hot-button issues of Japanese war remembrance and militarism are at the heart of "Yasukuni."

The hot-button issues of Japanese war remembrance and militarism are at the heart of “Yasukuni,” a doc about aesthetic mischief as much as it is political provocation. Li Ying — a Chinese director venturing onto perilous cultural soil — adopts a virtual anti-aesthetic in creating a film that, while not overtly nonjudgmental, will certainly tweak the nose of Japanese propriety, and seems destined for muted arthouse exposure.

Founded in 1869, Tokyo’s Yasukuni (“peaceful country”) is a Shinto monument in which 2.5 million Japanese war dead are enshrined, including some designated Class A war criminals. This makes it a target of protest by Taiwanese, Koreans and Chinese who see Yasukuni as an enabler — a reassuring testament to Japanese hegemony and the occasional atrocity committed in the name of the emperor.

Yasukuni is embodied, spiritually, in the sword: The central icon is the saber called “the body of Shinto” and the Sword Forging Assn. is situated on the spot as well. It is here that Li Ying finds Kariya Naoji, Japan’s oldest living swordsmith, and a man all but immune to the connections between art and action — the making of swords, and the purposes to which they’ve been put. Li Ying aims to find that connection; similarly angled documentaries could, and in some cases have, been made about Wagner, Riefenstahl, Celine, Mishima or Judas Priest.

Kariya seems at least cognizant of Japan’s historic culpability in pan-Asian violence. Elsewhere, however, people refute that the Rape of Nanking ever happened, or that officers made a sport of beheading prisoners with swords. Which leads back to Kariya; he says nothing. Most editors would have trimmed. Li Ying lets it play out to its uncomfortable conclusion.

But “Yasukuni” is about chronicling disorder and the breakdown of societal structures, elements Li Ying finds in the attitudes of many Japanese people toward their nation’s past, and which he transfers onto his images. People wander in and out of shots; the framing is untidy, bordering on chaotic. One parading vet tells the cameraman — either Li Ying himself or d.p. Yasuhiro Hotta — to get out of the way. A sequence involving a strange American supporter of hero-worship at Yasukuni — who is nonetheless almost physically attacked for holding an American flag — is surreal, lacking any real explanation or identification. The rules of composition are made irrelevant, much like, it is implied, jingoistic Japan’s exalted, blinkered vision of itself.

In one spectacular sequence, two protesters disrupt a ceremony at Yasukuni and are dragged off and then pursued for what seems like blocks by menacingly angry Japanese.

Camerawork is stunning, never flinching, putting the viewer in what seems like harm’s way. Visuals are breathtaking, but so is the loss of emotional control on display, by what are otherwise, probably, very rational people.

Production values are abysmal, but intentionally so.

Yasukuni

Japan-China

Production

A Dragon Films presentation. (International sales: Dragonfilms, Tokyo). Produced by Zhang Yuhui, Zhang Huijun, Hu Yun. Executive producers, Zhang Huijun, Hu Jun, Jiang Xuanbin, Li Ying. Co-producers, Tetsujiro Yamagami, Li Hongyu, Xu Xiangyun, Bobby KS Wan, Huang Haibo. Directed, written by Li Ying.

Crew

Camera (color), Yasuhiro Hotta, Li Ying; editor, Yuji Oshige, Li Ying; sound, Takayuki Nakamura. With Kariya Naoji, Sugawara Ryuken, Gaojin Sumei. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 26, 2008. Running time: 123 MIN. (Japanese dialogue)

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