Martin Scorsese’s Silence a Study in Shadows and Darkness | WhyNot!?JAPAN

Martin Scorsese’s Silence a Study in Shadows and Darkness

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Martin Scorsese’s Silence a Study in Shadows and Darkness


by Ben Lindstrom-Ives




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Martin Scorsese the renowned director of cinematic classics such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Wolf of Wall Street, has recently adapted the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence to the silver screen. Scorsese’s film Silence runs for nearly three hours, and from start to finish it is nothing less than a riveting tour de force. The film holds a powerful and claustrophobic atmosphere throughout the narrative, as there is little to no music featured in the film soundtrack. What we hear instead are the cries, screams, moans, and emotional anguish endured and vividly expressed by the Japanese Christian community of Nagasaki in the 17th century. During this period of time Tokugawa Lemitsu the Shogun of Japan, would initiate a massive campaign of bloodshed and genocide against not only the Christian missionaries from Portugal and the Netherlands, but all of the Japanese who decided to convert to Christianity.


Christianity in the eyes of the Tokugawa is not only ‘blasphemous’ offensive to the traditional tenets and teachings of Buddhism, but a monumental threat which could potentially unwind and destroy the highly organized social fabric of Japanese society itself. Scorsese in his narrative vividly conveys the terror and the horrors which Japanese Christians endured in this period of time, as the Tokugawa’s spies and forces were omnipresent. Often friends would betray friends in exchange for financial advances, and at any given moment a Christian could suddenly face agonizing torture, and worse yet death to come without any expectation. From these emotions one feels a strong sense of impending doom throughout the story for the struggling Christian community in Nagasaki.


The film opens up with a thick layer of fog which has both cast its net and blanketed the harbor of Nagasaki, making almost nothing visible to the eyes of the filmgoer. Within moments, however, shadow like movements suddenly occur, and the Tokugawa’s soldiers can soon be seen making a grand entry outside of this thick blanket of fog. Immediately after they make their appearance, several men in the background can be seen hanging on crosses over boiling hot water from the nearby hot springs. One of the characters who is featured in this scene is Father Ferrera a Portuguese missionary played by Liam Neeson, who had been working as missionary in Nagasaki over the course of several years. As we soon discover, Father Ferrera will soon disappear under ‘mysterious circumstances.’


Fast forward to several years later in the Portuguese colony of Macau, two priests by the names of Father Rodriguez and Garupe played respectively by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, are informed by the Catholic Diocese of Macau that Father Ferrera is still missing and was rumored to have blasphemed while he was working in Japan. In other words, it was said that Ferrera openly renounced God in order to save his own life. Nonetheless, Father Rodriguez and Garupe decide to take matters into their own hands despite rumors of blasphemy, and to make the effort to travel to Nagasaki to see if there is any chance that Father Ferrera is still alive. Through a smuggled voyage via the assistance of a Japanese expatriate Kichijiro in Macau, Rodriguez and Garupe soon enter a true heart of darkness. Japan metaphorically becomes referred to as a ‘swamp’ by the arriving priests. The ‘swamp’ in this case refers to Japan as a place where ‘nothing’ foreign and non-Japanese has a chance to grow or to flourish in this heavily homogenous and ancient society.  Upon arriving on the rough shores of Nagasaki, Father Garupe and Rodriguez soon find out that the once flourishing Christian communities in Nagasaki have been pressured to enter into a state of hiding for several years, and that all of their community has been forced to live underground for fear of loosing their own lives.


In this very heart of darkness in which they have entered, both Rodriguez and Ferrera are challenged not only by their own faith, but the problem of evil itself. Despite their strong faith in God, oftentimes doubts are created, as they cannot understand why ‘good people’ who are living by God’s example in their view must suffer so greatly. During the course of their missionary work they provide and offer prayer, communion, and solace in order to try to heal and revive a much traumatized and distressed community. The community members have been living under constant fear particularly over the activities of the commander Inoue Masashige, a military leader who is under the direct employment of the Shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu in Nagasaki. Massahige has acted both as the executor and the primary antagonist of the Christian community for several years.


The community’s loyalty and support to the Christian faith not surprisingly has become increasingly challenged, despite the universal promises and hopes granted by the priests of salvation and a happier life to come after death. People get tortured, many are separated from their family and friends, and many of them do not come to see the light of day. The horrible things which happen to members of this community bring up some very important ethical issues, and ultimately transform the lives of these two priests. Some of the questions which both the priests and the Christian community try to reckon with are; Is it simply better to defy the Tokugawa’s orders, and always be willing to die for your beliefs in order to be saved? Is it better to renounce God publicly, in order to save many lives from death? Is that sinful? Or, is it necessary? These ultimately are some of the biggest philosophical questions which come to plague the two priests and the Christian community of Nagasaki over and over again. In essence, there is not a single day in which the priests and the Christian community of Nagasaki are not engaged in a literal battle between the forces of good and evil. Moreover, there are no ‘definitively’ right or wrong answers provided for any of these issues.


 Amidst great tragedy and strife in the film, great beauty can also be found. Scorsese beautifully evokes the historical atmosphere       of 17th century Japan with the film’s beautiful costumes, sets, and designs which highlight the wonderful Japanese aesthetic of that period of time. The height of Japanese civilization is memorably exemplified in the film by its temples, commercial cities, tea houses, religious scholars, poets, etc. The theme of the flowering of high Japanese culture moreover comes in great contrast with the massive suffering experienced by many  Japanese Christians at this moment of history.


Martin Scorsese’s Silence was a very difficult film to watch, as one is able to connect very strongly to the characters who suffer and endure much pain during these times of trial and persecution in 17th century Japan. It is a powerful analysis of the clash of civilizations between traditional Japan and that of Christian Europe. Holding great fears over the ways in which outside change could potentially destroy traditional Japanese society, with the combination of the cult like movement of missionary work in Christianity, Scorsese makes it very clear that  conflict was ultimately inevitable between these two clashing points of view, and that any sort of attempted diplomacy or reconciliation would not be possible. This is where much of the film’s power lies. There are no definitively  ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters  in the film. Both the Christians and the traditional characters both strongly believe that they belong to the ‘right side’ of history. Both forces are intertwined in a struggle for dominance, and ultimately end their existences in tragedy. I cannot think of a better told narration or cinematic interpretation of the struggles of Christian communities in Nagasaki which took place in the Japan of 400 years ago. All in all, Scorsese has proven to be working at his finest hour, with this cinematic masterpiece. It is moving, vivid, and utterly unforgettable. It is a film that requires multiple viewings I believe, in order to fully understand the ethical and philosophical battles which  took place and continue to persist between ‘East’ and ‘West’.





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