Silence (1971)

First published by Film International

In Japan, Christianity is a minority religion of only marginal significance to the nation’s culture, and accordingly Japanese films that focus on Christianity tend to do so as a means to an end. While Suzuki Norifumi’s nunsploitation shocker School of the Holy Beast (Seiju gakuen, 1974), for example, freely adopted the trappings and iconography of Catholicism, it showed little interest in Christianity itself, instead using the setting of a cloistered convent to symbolise the more insular, repressive and patriarchal aspects of Japan. In Shinoda Masahiro’s Silence (Chinmoku), however, Christianity is scrutinised with a thoroughgoing earnestness, not just as a reflection of Japan past and present, but as an end in itself. The film is, after all, adapted from the 1966 novel by Endo Shusaku, who was himself both a Christian and something of an outsider to his native culture. For he spent his childhood in occupied Manchuria, was converted to his divorced mother’s Catholicism shortly after returning to Japan at age ten (in 1933), and studied abroad in Paris during the post-war period – and if there can be any doubting the theological rigor invested into both Endo’s novel and the film (which he co-scripted with the director), it has now attracted the attentions of that most famous of Catholic directors, Martin Scorsese, whose own film adaptation of the novel is slated for release in 2010 [now 2016].

Shinoda’s film opens with a brief expository prologue, narrated over a montage of Christian icons and historical woodcuts. In it, two distinct but interrelated lessons in history are briefly offered: first, the 1534 foundation of the Society of Jesus whose mission was to counteract the recent rise of Protestantism in Europe and to spread Catholic teachings throughout the world; and second, the initial success of the Jesuit mission in Japan, followed by its brutal suppression towards the end of the sixteenth century, when ‘countless priests, monks and believers were murdered.’ The travails of faith in crisis, and the often troubled relations between East and West – these themes, so carefully twinned in the prologue, will haunt the narrative that follows, starting with its first lines.

‘Are you really a Christian, Kichijiro?’ asks a dumb-founded Padre Garrpe (Don Kenny), to which Garrpe’s companion Padre Rodrigues (David Lampson) adds: ‘Are you really Japanese?’ The two padres have been brought under cover of night to Japan’s southern coastline, but they have become suspicious of the intentions of their guide from Macao, Kichijiro (Iwamatsu ‘Mako’ Makoto), who has just insisted on being paid for his services immediately. Certainly, the near total darkness in which this sequence has been shot helps to obscure Kichijiro’s allegiances and to cloak his nationality – indeed, none of the three is visible except in the shadowiest of outlines.

More broadly, however, this lack of light reflects the darkness of the times for Japan’s remaining Christians, proscribed and forced to carry on their worship underground. In the opening sequences, Rodrigues and Garrpe are shunted from one barely lit hiding place to another, and warned by their crypto-Christian farmer hosts not to venture outside or be seen – and when the pair finally does emerge, after a full fifteen minutes, in search of ‘a little sun’, even DP Miyagawa Kazuo’s daylight exteriors remain, for all their wide-shot spectacle, desaturated and thoroughly devoid of warmth. Far from being a film whose initial darkness will eventually give way to something like dazzling clarity, in Silence uncertainty pervades everything, and by the end viewers might well find themselves addressing the same questions of faith and identity to Rodrigues himself that he addressed to Kichijiro, as the notion of what constitutes a ‘real’ Christian, or indeed a ‘real’ Japanese, has been sorely tested.

Rodrigues and Garrpe intend to spread the gospel, but they are also seeking to learn the fate of their old tutor and mentor Padre Ferreira, who has disappeared without trace after being captured by the Japanese authorities five years earlier. They discover communities whose already arduous existences are compounded by extortionate taxation and ruthless persecution, and yet who are willing to risk everything to continue in their Christian practice. In the absence of priests or monks, the villagers have been secretly carrying out the rites themselves as best they can. Inevitably, with no-one to guide them the Japanese worshippers have developed some of their own rituals and resorted to a degree of syncretism: Rodrigues is momentarily horrified to see an idol of the Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, being worshipped as Mary in Kichijiro’s island village, and he is later told that the Japanese ‘bend and change our God into something else, something quite different’ – specifically Dainichi, a Japanese Buddhist sun god. Still, there is no questioning the local Christians’ devotion to their faith: when four are taken prisoner by the authorities, three prefer to give up their lives (singing Christian hymns to their dying breath) than to spit on a sacred image. Under such circumstances, it seems out of place to interrogate their credentials as ‘real’ Christians, even if they do not strictly conform to the particulars of Roman Catholic doctrine.

Even Rodrigues, though at first furious to learn that the weak-willed Kichijiro once trod on a sacred image rather than endure agonising torture, will later himself shout to the captured villagers, ‘It’s alright to step on it! It’s alright!’; while conversely the tormented Kichijiro, who repeatedly renounces his faith under duress, complains that, had he been born in the times before Christianity was outlawed, ‘I’d have lived and died a good Christian.’ It may be an uncompromising dogma that the Jesuits proselytise, one that regards even Protestantism as a form of apostasy, but what Rodrigues is quick to learn is that, in extremis, it can become difficult to reproach compromise, if even more difficult and painful to have to live with it.

Less than halfway through the film’s duration, Rodrigues is himself caught, and what follows is a series of ordeals, as the Nagasaki Magistrate Inoue (himself a former Christian), aided by a wily interpreter (educated in a seminary) and by Padre Ferreira himself, applies argument, torture and blackmail to his prisoner in an effort to persuade him to renounce his faith. There is real tension in these scenes as, on the one hand, we fully expect Rodrigues to follow the path ordained for him in the scriptures, while on the other we are led to wonder just how bad apostasy and moral compromise can really be when they have power to reduce the suffering of others.

There are parallels both implicit and explicit between Jesus and the increasingly beardy Rodrigues: for the latter has a loyal following, wanders in the wilderness, is betrayed by Kichijiro (whom Garrpe expressly compares to Judas near the film’s beginning) for 300 silver pieces (which Rodrigues himself relates to the amount paid for Jesus’ head), must face an oppressive ruling power, and is forced to carry a yoke through a jeering mob. When Rodrigues declares, ‘I’m ready for martyrdom,’ he seems merely to be stating an inevitability; for surely he will, like his Lord, like so many of the villagers, like so many priests before him, and like his good friend Garrpe, die for his beliefs.

At the same time this expectation is cast into doubt by a rather different, more complicated model of Christianity, as embodied by Ferreira (now going by the name Chuan Sawano). Ferreira may just be, as Rodrigues first assumes, a corrupted, self-serving hypocrite who has given up everything he once believed in for a Japanese name, wife and ‘fine life’ – and yet by the end we come to understand that he might instead be as much a tormented prisoner as Rodrigues himself, and that his very apostasy might have been ‘the most painful act of love’ and a sacrifice of Christ-like proportions – one that makes the more conventional kind of martyrdom sought by Rodrigues seem selfish, merciless and futile by comparison. Ultimately there is considerable equivocation in the presentation of both Ferreira’s and Rodrigues’ similar choices, so that we are left unsure whether they play Judas to their own principles, or remain profoundly (if unorthodoxly) faithful to the very end – but what is never in doubt are the seriousness and intensity of this moral drama.

If this discourse on faith and flexibility reflects specific concerns within the schism-beset Church of the sixteenth century, as well as more general concerns about the nature of Christian identity, Silence is equally preoccupied by the uneasy trafficking of goods and ideas between East and West – the same theme that in fact dominated Shinoda’s first period film Assassination (Ansatsu, 1964), set against the background of a nineteenth-century Japan riven by US attempts to reopen trade routes. It is, of course, a theme of great currency in Shinoda’s own post-war Japan, occupied by the Allied forces until 1952 and still undergoing a rapid process of Westernisation.

The arrival of the Jesuit movement in Japan coincided (as the film’s prologue asserts twice) with the first imports of the gun, and the Catholic missions, though at first tolerated, were regarded, not without good reason, as part of a broader programme of Western imperialist expansion. Eventually Japan’s rulers responded by suppressing the Church and imposing a policy of extreme isolationism, in an attempt to keep Western culture off Japanese soil. Yet the film’s story opens with Rodrigues and Garrpe’s incursion from the sea onto island Japan, and thereafter images (not to mention the sound) of waves crashing against the rocky shoreline abound. Indeed, it is between sea and shore that so many of the film’s most significant events unfold, like the crucifixion of the villagers (literally killed by the rising tide), the capture of Rodrigues (on a beach buffeted by waves), and the death of Garrpe (in a harbour). Here the eternal clash of water and land becomes a powerful metaphor for East and West, constantly, often violently, renegotiating their inevitable interrelationship.

Again and again Silence explores the liminal space where East and West come into direct collision. It is not just in the lengthy debates between Rodrigues and Ferreira on whether Western ideas can ever take root in Japan, but also in Takemitsu Toru’s discordant merging of classical lute with Japanese percussion on the soundtrack, or in the film’s prominent bilingualism (with English subbing for Portuguese) – or most of all in the casting of a heavily made-up Tamba Tetsuro as renegade Portuguese Jesuit Ferreira who has now adopted Japanese dress, customs and tongue. Rodrigues and Ferreira are both struggling, in desperate straits, to occupy the common ground of humanism. On the subject of whether such common ground actually exists between Japan and the West, Shinoda’s film ultimately remains silent, but the harmonies to be found in its construction and execution speak volumes.

© Anton Bitel