“Silence” is an important movie about Christianity and Japan. Based on a novel by a Japanese writer who have converted to Catholicism, the movie considers “the swamp” of Japan and why Christianity didn’t take hold, but also the clash between Japan and Western powers.
First, let’s consider context.
Christianity in Europe
In the beginning of the religion, Christians were persecuted in Europe. Some of the rituals of Christianity “were mistaken as cannibalism, others as incest” according to PBS.org. Emperor Nero found the Christians “an easy scapegoat.” Christians were tortured and executed in Rome. Nearly two centuries later, the Roman Empire would be ruled by a Christian, Constantine the Great (AD 280 to 337), who converted and credited all of success to his new-found religion. Emperor Theodosis (347-395), who ruled the Roman empire from 379 to 395, declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire, with Orthodox Nicene Christianity as the official state church. As Christianity became established, prejudice against Jews, as the people who killed Jesus, formulated leading to persecutions, often related to the Crusades (Rhineland Massacres 1096). Jews were banished from England (Edict of Expulsion in 1290) and Austria (1420). Jews were allowed back into Austria in 1469 by Frederick the Third. Oliver Cromwell would allow Jews back into England in 1657 at about the time of the latter events in “Silence.” Black Death plagues (1346-1353) also resulted in a rise of persecution and murders when rumors spread that Jews caused the disease. Muhammad (570-632) had already lived and died, founding Islam.
King Henry VIII (1491-1547) would split from the Catholic Church to settle his marital ambitions and appoint himself head of the church in 1534. Martin Luther had already published his Ninety-Five Theses that began a lasting movement away from the Roman Catholic Church in Germany.
The movie takes place in the year of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, when Irish Catholic gentry attempted to gain control of the English Protestant administration.
Buddhism in Japan
Buddhism originated in India, but it came to Japan through China and Korea, about a thousand years after death of Buddha. Monks traveled to from China to Japan, but the official introduction came in 552 when the King Seong Myong of Paekche sent a mission to the Emperor Kinmei, hoping for a military alliance against the the Korean kingdom of Silla which was supported by the Chinese Tang Dynasty.
The introduction of the new religion wasn’t entirely peaceful. The Soga clan (蘇我氏) supported Buddhism against the Mononobe (物部氏 ) and Nakatomi (中臣氏 ) clans who supported Shinto, the native religion. The Mononobe clan was defeated in 587 at the Battle of Shigisan. By the Heian Period (794-1185) warrior monks were established at monasteries. Buddhism and Shinto co-existed in relative peace. Daibutsu were built in Nara in 752 then capitol and in Kamakura Shogun capitol in 1252.
Japanese Buddhism, aside from Nichiren (1222-1282), was peculiarly tolerant. One didn’t have to make choices between Shinto and Buddhism. Japanese often visit a Shinto shrine during New Year’s celebrations but for funerals seek a Buddhist monk.
During the time that the movie takes place (Azuchi-Momoyama period of 1573-1600 and the Edo/Tokugawa Period of 1600-1868), there were two authorities: the shogun and the emperor. Neither of which converted to Christianity. Oda Nobunaga was followed by Hideyoshi Toyotomi and finally Japan was unifed under Ieyasu Tokugawa. Nobunaga (1534-1582) began the unification of Japan, during which time trade was expanded with China, Korea, Europe, the Philippines and Indonesia. Toyotomi was a general under Nobunaga and after Nobunaga was betrayed by his retainter Akechi Mitsuhide and committed ritual suicide, Toyotomi became the great unifier of Japan and although he ended the Warring States period, after his death Tokugawa displaced his son, Hideyori, and became the ruler of Japan under the emperor.
Toyotomi ordered the execution of 26 Christians by crucifixion. The Spanish and the Portuguese weren’t unified but competitive in their efforts to bring Catholicism to Japan. The Jesuits had a trickle down approach but began with the local daimyo.
Francis Xavier supported the Jesuit Catholic missions through commerce. The missionaries weren’t above recruiting soldiers from amongst the Japanese believers who the Jesuits hoped would help the Jesuits conquer China. The introduction of Christianity by the Portuguese and Spanish came with other problems including the introduction of firearms and slavery. The military nature of the Jesuits missionary practices, including the introduction of superior weaponry, predominately to the Kyushu area as opposed to the center of power in Kyoto or Edo.
“Silence” and the Superior White Man
While reviewers like Jen Yamamoto for The Daily Beast have concluded that the movie “Silence” is another addition to the white savior genre out of Hollywood, one should consider why Shūsaku Endō (1923-1996) decided to use a white Portuguese man as the protagonist. Endō experienced religious discrimination in Japan, but he also experienced racism in France. Endō was born in China, but returned to Japan in 1933. He was given a Catholic baptism in 1934. He began college in 1943, but during the war he worked at a munitions factory. After the war, he studied in France, being interested in French Catholic authors.
“Silence” was published 1966 in Japanese and in 1969 in English. One of the novel’s characters is based on Cristóvão Ferreira (1580-1650). Ferreira served as a Jesuit missionary from 1609-1633, but in 1633 he apostatized after torture. He took on the name Sawano Chūan (沢野忠庵), became a registered Buddhist and married a Japanese woman. The protagonist, Sebastião Rodrigues, is based on an Italian Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Chiara (1602-1685).
The movie begins with Ferreira (Liam Neeson) being confronted by the shogunate authorities and committing apostasy after he has watched the faithful being scalded with the boiling water from the natural hot springs. Flashing forward, two Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), are determined to find Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and determine if the news about his apostasy is true or mere slander. The task before them isn’t easy because the Sakoku Edict of June 1636 has closed Japan to the Portuguese. Only China and the Netherlands (Dutch East India Company) are allowed to trade. Japanese are not supposed to leave the country and those who leave return from aboard are under the threat of the death penalty. Catholicism is forbidden and quickly punished. The faithful Christians become Hidden Christians.
In the Portuguese colony of Macau, Rodrigues and Garrpe find an interpreter, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka). Dirty and cringing, crumpled on the floor with drunken despair, the man was formerly a Catholic, but he waivers and vacillates on the strength of his beliefs. The man renounced his faith while his family held steady and his family were all martyred before his eyes. He remains haunted by his orphaning.
Rodrigues and Garrpe understand that Kichijiro isn’t a trustworthy companion, but he becomes their guide and faithfully brings them in touch with Hidden Christians in Tomogi, outside of Nagasaki. The Christians, led by Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) and Ichizo (Yoshi Oida), shelter the priests and rejoice in finally being able to have baptisms and have their confessions heard. These dirty peasants do not, however, have any news of Ferreira. Although touched by the humility and disconcerted by the people’s understanding of the Bible, Rodrigues takes risks that eventually lead the two to another community of Hidden Christians on Gotō, islands about 100 kilometers west of Nagasaki.
Rodrigues and Garrpe will separate, be caught by the Japanese authorities and be separately interrogated. They will be forced to question what is faith and what the meaning of silence. Is God silent in the face of torture of his faithful? Or is the answer one that the person doesn’t want to hear? Rodrigues dares his captors, “You want to test my faith? Give me a real challenge.” Yet the real challenge may be personal. Rodrigues later asks himself, “Am I just praying to silence?”
Writing for a Japanese audience who would have learned Japanese history in school, Endō didn’t need to detail all aspects behind Sakoku. Even though most historical accounts about Japan in English do not mention Toyotomi’s anger at Japanese slaves being exported to Portugal, the socio-political problems of divided loyalties to the church or to the military leadership, superior weaponry and the prospect of an invading European army advancing into Japan as had already happened in the Philippines (Manila became the capitol of the Spanish East Indies in 1571) are enough to understand the necessity of banning the Portuguese-backed Jesuits.
Yet think of how teachers teach and how students understand what is taught. Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive in Japan without any knowledge of Japanese history or Japanese religions. They cannot read or write Japanese. They cannot speak the language. They are at the mercy of their interpreters in their work and in their mission to find Ferreira. Much is lost in translation. It takes a certain type of arrogance for someone to teach philosophy or religion in a foreign country without any understanding of the culture or social structures.
Rodrigues has a different type of arrogance that the interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) and the interrogator (Issei Ogata) recognize. As the old samurai Inoue tells Rodrigues,”The price for your glory is their suffering.”
Director Martin Scorsese indicates that Rodrigues identifies with Christ, sometimes seeing the face of a European Christ in his own reflection (although Christ was most certainly West Asian). Has Rodrigues elevated himself to the level of Christ? Is that not in a sense vanity?
“No matter what the circumstances, no man can completely escape from vanity” Endō wrote in “Silence.”
Scorsese gives us a different type of Japan. The peasants are dirty and desperate. Death seems preferable to a life where one often starves or is casually slaughtered without consequence by local samurai. The greenery is lush, but outside of Nagasaki, the houses are little more than sheds. Yet for this the two fathers can’t be thankful, and they can’t embrace the humility and simplicity or the wisdom of the impoverished. Remember, these men came from countries where grand cathedrals were being built and the religion was no longer one voice, but breaking up into many different sects or denominations. The question of loyalty had already been brought up by European kings and the Portuguese and the Spanish were at odds, even in their religious teachings although belonging to the supposedly same Catholic church.
Garfield again assumes the role of a man of faith as he did in the earlier 2016 release “Hacksaw Ridge.” In that movie, Japan is again the scenario that tests his faith, but the gore is grimmer in the Mel Gibson directed flick. Scorsese focuses more on the faces and physical and emotional anguish are given equal weight. You almost wish that Garfield’s next film will be a light comedy in Japan. In 2016, he’s the face of a white man’s agony in the swamp of Japan. As Desmond Doss in “Hacksaw Ridge,” Garfield is more middle-America stubbornly faithful. As this father, he has more blazing indignation that is cooled and tamed following his apostasy.
A non-Buddhist might miss the symbolic import of the usage of “swamp.” While a white rose is the symbol of purity and a red rose the symbol of martyrdom in Christianity (and also symbolize the Wars of the Roses in England), Buddhism is represented by a lotus. Lotus grow in swamps; the flower rises above the mud and grime of the world as should the Buddhists. Ferreira is reminded every day that he is in a swamp by his very Japanese name, “Sawada.” Sawada (沢 田）literally means swamp （sawa) and rice field (da).
“Silence” is about Christianity in a Buddhist world and different aspects of faith, where some of the faithful died brutal deaths and others kept their faith hidden, allowing communities to survive two hundred years. What would Jesus have done under similar circumstances? For humans, that answer is unknowable. Jesus was not faced with this moral conundrum.
For Catholics, “Silence” shows different choices and past mistakes. For those who believe Japanese are all sheeple and conformists, “Silence” is a powerful testament to the resilience of human spirit–even in Japan: The faithful did not conform, they survived. The choice to survive isn’t a peculiarly Japanese choice. Even a Western father like Rodrigues, was forced hide his true feelings, his honne (本音) or true sound and show a public façade or tatemae (建前) during his daily betrayal of Christians.
For Asian Americans, “Silence” refutes arguments that the “real” Asian Americans are not Christian. Christianity has a history in China and Japan, one that pre-dates the Victorians and their entry into Japan after Commodore Perry forced Japan open. Christians in Asia have suffered for their faith and Christianity is, after all, a religion founded in Asia. Islam, which came after Buddhism and Christianity, is also a religion of Asia with its adherents predominately Asian, including ethnic Chinese.
“Silence” is about faith under adversity and the nature of being a minority religion or even how one must or mustn’t act when one is a minority. There is no inspirational happy ending, but a long series of tests that must be faced and Scorsese presents these with the kind of dark dread that seems peculiarly Catholic. The audience endures these trials of faith.
While Catholics in the US are a minority, but they are treated better than other religious minorities. In a time when the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland finally seem to have settled their differences, other religions are targeted for hate crimes in both Europe and the US. In this respect, “Silence” is a reminder that any faith can be seen in a negative manner and even torture and death didn’t extinguish Catholicism in a small isolated country despite the passing of 200 years. Why should we expect it to be any different elsewhere?