By Marshall Wordsworth
Martin Scorsese’s Silence, his latest film adaptation of a novel by Japan’s celebrated author, Shusaku Endo, is an ambitious attempt to portray the fierce struggles of Jesuit priests in a mission to spread Christianity in 17th-century Japan. Andrew Garfield stars as the young Padre Sebastiao Rodrigues who faces physical and spiritual tribulations by the hostile Japanese authorities in Nagasaki as he searches for his fellow senior Portuguese missionary, Padre Cristovao Ferreira played by veteran Liam Neeson.
While Western viewers may quickly judge Japan as an intolerant, anti-Christian nation in the Far East that practices paganism, be it Shintoism or Buddhism, the former being her national religion and the latter her second most popular faith, the historical background and what Japan opted to undertake as a means of national security vis-à-vis the European powers extending their colonial expansion across Asia can be a rather timely and constructive profile in wisdom for the 21st century.
The film not only forcefully depicts the harsh realities of paying the ultimate price for spreading the words of Christ in a non-Christian world, but also how a sovereign nation with her own unique belief system instinctively and inexorably answers when her very existence is threatened by another religion from without: the film is set in the early years of the Edo Period of Japan (from 1603) shortly after she closes her diplomatic doors to the outside world, entering a period of isolation (Sakoku, from 1639 to 1854) that effectively ends Western religious influence. Although the Dutch continued commerce with Japan during that time, she did so with the condition not to engage in any missionary activities, and the Tokugawa shogunate, the reigning national governmental power of that era, managed to maintain control over numerous regional feudal lords (daimyo) throughout the Japanese archipelago.
Two centuries later, after much of Asia succumbed to European colonialism that wielded vastly superior military might which also symbolized dominance in the form of commerce and religion (material wealth and spiritual enlightenment), Commodore Perry of the U.S. Navy made an unexpected, uninvited visit to Japan with his ‘Black Ships’ to urge reestablishing foreign relations with the West, opening up Japan to the world once again. It took little time for Japan to understand the necessity of a quick and effective modernization in the areas of science, technology, trade, and military armament based on geopolitics as the world became much smaller.
After two world wars, with the last resulting in Japan’s utterly devastating defeat, this small archipelago of a nation miraculously rose again in the latter half of the last century as an economic power, and today remains as one of America’s most trusted and important allies. Japan is also one of the most Christian-friendly nations in all of Asia, if not in the world, and instead of describing it as a ‘swamp,’ which is how Padre Ferreira, now an apostate who has taken a Japanese name and wife, tries to convince Padre Rodrigues that his efforts to proselytize these people are entirely futile, a more apt metaphor would be a carr requiring time for eventual formation of a forest.
Over the years, Japan has allowed Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, and today, Christianity, to coexist in society; for instance, there are those who are both Buddhist and Christian. Endo, the author of the novel the film is based on, was a Catholic himself. Thus, certain Christian viewers may find some solace when an old, deceased ‘Japanese’ Rodrigues is cremated in the final scene – as the title suggests, scenes without dialog prove to be the most powerful and telling, and the ending is no exception.
Aside from the obvious theme of Christian persecution, one can also discover an underlying issue that has become as pertinent as ever: a nation must value her national identity, and if another religion causes disruption of social, political, and cultural hegemony, she most certainly has the right to defend her moral foundation, heritage, and institutions. In this respect, Scorsese’s Silence can be viewed as a testament of any nation worthy of survival having the inherent prerogative to protect herself from foreign subjugation that inevitably involves religious indoctrination of her people. Although Rodrigues explains to the daimyo who has captured him that there is only one truth, the Catholic teachings, the daimyo then alludes to trees and other God’s creations as unique and distinctive in different terrains. In another scene, the daimyo makes reference to the British, Dutch, Portuguese, and the Spaniards, all having engaged in commerce with Japan, as concubines who were tearing down the house of their warlord, and inquires Rodrigues why must he choose a foreign woman over a native one? Perhaps to the daimyo, the truth is found more manifestly in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and for Japan in the 1600s, Catholic missionaries may have represented what more and more nations today have begun to reject and resist what they identify as agents of globalism.