In the latest Latin Mass magazine, an article by the ever-informative Prof. Anne Barbeau Gardiner called to my attention that in 1962 Nagisa Ôshima directed a film called, in English, "Shiro Amakusa, the Christian Rebel," about the leader of the Shimabara uprising of 37,000 Christians in Japan (1637-38) against the Tokugawa Shogunate. The shogun eventually had to send a force of over 125,000 troops to suppress the rebellion, after learning that it wasn't a rag-tag army of peasants but a well-trained and armed rebellion led by Amakusa. At the heroic showdown at Hara Castle (in the southwestern Kyushu province of Hinzen), which was occupied by the rebels, the uprising was finally crushed, but only after a siege of several months in which the rebels were starved, yet inflicted huge losses (8,000-13,000) on the shogun's army. The result was a policy of "absolute seclusion" of Japan for over two centuries, and Christians were put to death by the thousands or were forced to apostatize.
I couldn't find a copy of the movie anywhere. But in my research online, I found that a short film on a similar topic was made in 2007 that I hadn't noticed, starring Shin Koyamada, who played alongside Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, but even more remarkably disclosed his own Catholic roots among the "kakure kirishitan" (Christians in hiding) who had suffered persecution in the Shimabara rebellion. In this movie, Koyamada plays Masuda Jinbei (the FATHER of Shiro Amakusa, and a samurai who dared to challenge the ideology of the warrior class, follow his personal beliefs, and face what was considered back then to be social suicide). In the linked article interviewing Koyamada below, he talks about the personal meaning the role had for him in this movie, entitled "Good Soil" (2007). Here's a trailer:
Dr. Craig Reid, "GOOD SOIL: LAST SAMURAI to First Christian Samurai" (Kungfu Magazine):
GOOD SOIL is a groundbreaking film about the first samurai warrior who refused to give up his allegiance to Christianity and blindly accept the Shogun as his master. To the film's star, Shin Koyamada, who plays Masuda Jinbei (a samurai who dared to challenge the ideology of the warrior class, follow his personal beliefs, and face what was considered back then to be social suicide), the role had personal significance.Related:
"I was interested in this film because it's a samurai film that portrays true historical events of Japan, stuff we don't have many opportunities to learn school," Koyamada told kungfumagazine.com, "and even though there is this history of Christianity, we don't talk about it in school, just like we don't talk about in Japan what we did to China (during World War II). They try not to reveal that past but want to focus on the future. But learning one's own roots and identity are important, so when I read the script, I was not familiar with the story, but Jinbei hit me close to home."
Koyamada became interested in learning about his samurai heritage one year after coming to America, and the impulse to search for his past became stronger after starring with Tom Cruise in THE LAST SAMURAI.
"After that film, I spoke to my grandfather to find out more about my ancestors," he says, "and he told me about Kakure Kirishitan, which means 'hidden religion,' something that existed hundreds of years ago back in Kagoshima, Japan, throughout Kyushu. Apparently, my ancestors believed in a sort of 'hidden religion,' and when I asked what it was, he (Koyamada's grandfather) didn't know and wasn't interested. My parents told me not to tell anybody about my family heritage because it is considered shameful.
"People were persecuted by the government in the 1600s if you were part of Kakure Kirishitan, this was a bad thing. My ancestors were part of that, and it didn't click in me until I started doing GOOD SOIL and was talking to Craig (the film's director Craig Shimahara) and he was telling me the history of Jinbei and his son Amakusa Shiro.
"I'm the first in my family interested in this, so after I researched Jinbei, Amakusa, and the history of Christianity in Japan, something bothered me and after I spoke with Craig about my past he said, 'Wow.' When I told my parents and they asked if I spoke to Craig before the film and I said I didn't, I knew something was up. These stories are similar and as it turns out Kakure Kirishitan, the hidden religion, was Christianity.
"What's interesting is my ancestors escaped or were sent to the countryside because they were Christian, like in this film where Jinbei stands up for his beliefs and was sent to the countryside where he passed on his legacy to his descendants. All my ancestors were possibly Christian samurai in Kagoshima. Two years ago I visited my ancestors' land, we own a mountain, the place they were sent and secretly passed down our history from generation to generation, and I'm the direct descendant who can now pass it on."
So how do Koyamada's parents feel now that that he openly speaks to the world of those things that are considered shameful family secrets?
"I convinced them that times change, people change, there's nothing to hide," he says. "One need not be ashamed or afraid to speak up. Four hundred years ago it was a problem to speak about being a Christian to the public, but now there is no need to hide. If we admit the past, we can move on. I broke the rule by finding this out, I also broke the rule by marrying a Columbian. I'm the family troublemaker but you can't make a mark without risks, can you. Working on this film became personal."
The Portuguese brought Christianity to Japan in 1549 but 100 years later, when the Shogun started to fear that Christianity was a precursor to European imperialism, Japan began wiping out Christianity. They instituted a sort of Buddhist Inquisition, ferreting out Christians and making them renounce their faith by having them step on the cross or defile other Christian iconography. If they refused to renounce their faith, they were tortured or killed. This went on until 1637, when a rebellion of 37,000 Christians led by the most famous Christian in Japanese history, the samurai swordsman turned ronin, Amakusa Shiro, took on the Shogun's army at Harajo castle.
"There is a lot of information out there about Amakusa but none on Jinbei," director/writer Craig Shimahara points out, "so I took the historical character of Jinbei then tried to imagine what kind of character he was to have such a profound influence on his son. It's like doing a story about George Washington's dad. Being such a famous martyr, I overlaid GOOD SOIL with the parable of the "sower" from the new testament, which is a fable filled with symbolic characters that tells about a farmer who sows seeds onto four different soil types: along a path, where birds gobble up the seed; on rocks, where it grows as a root but withers when the sun comes out; among thorns, where the plant grows but thorns choke the plant; and on good soil, where the plant grows and multiplies. These four soils correspond to the four main characters of the film."
The Tokugawa Shogunate had one Christian lord, daimyo Konishi Yukinaga. When Yukinaga was stripped of his title, his samurai became ronins and were exiled to become farmers in Southern Japan. The brutal daimyo Matsukura Shigeharu, who replaced Yukinaga, was ordered to wipe out Christianity. To make a long story short, during what was known as the Shimbara Rebellion, Shigeharu marched on these farmers with a vast army of samurai warriors and were met with great resistance by an army of peasants and ronins who were under the leadership of Jinbei's son Amakusa. Amakusa's battle cry was, "We would rather die one swift death than a thousand slow ones."
When asked how a samurai could become a Christian knowing full well that he could only serve one master?the Shogun?Shimahara says, "The priests were effective and exemplified many of the bushido traits of self-sacrifice and serving a master, their master being Christ. The Portuguese were passionate people able to make an arduous journey, and were focused and dedicated, traits that inspired the samurai. Also, there is evidence that many of the Christian samurai class or above took advantage of the situation because of trade knowing if they were Christian they would have an in with traders from Spain, Portugal and other European countries, so it was a motivating factor. There were earnest Christians, it was a new frontier and a new kind of thinking."
Where star Koyamada was inspired to seek out his heritage, director Shimahara, born and raised in the United States, had previously ignored his heritage. GOOD SOIL gave him the opportunity to right that wrong. "Although my purpose in life as a Christian is to glorify God and do that by sharing faith, in this case with the art of filmmaking, and hopefully do so subtly without making it an evangelical statement, GOOD SOIL allowed me to reconnect with my Japanese past. I've spent a life ignoring my heritage, but there has been a great desire on my part to delve in to my past and find out who I am culturally.
"I'm also interested in the history of Christianity in Japan and telling a story that shares this film's theme, your character's line as Jinbei's mentor, the priest?to stand firm on one's faith. Jinbei's faith is tested by the daimyo and it is a trial that involves the potential death of himself and his family; a great test of what you truly believe in."
As it turns out I was approached by Koyamada to not only play the priest in the film, but to also assist in training the actors on how to use swords as well as to put together the foundations for the film's fight scenes.
I have been covering cinema for 15 years, I have done hundreds of interviews with the biggest names in Asia and Hollywood, I've visited scores of film sets to see how the films are shot and spoken with the stars and directors as they've performed. It is remarkable just how few of these filmmakers have little to share about their movies beyond the usual, "I loved working on this film" or "so and so was a great actor to work with" or "it was a lot of fun". Although cumulatively I have only acted or done fight choreography in about 25 film and TV productions, I could write a book on each experience.
In the book of GOOD SOIL, I would write about the sweating, yelling and the harsh summer's heat faced by the actors during their arduous training as I tapped into my old kendo and Okinawan goju ryu training, meticulously correcting the actors' stances, sword postures and the timing-mechanism screams. For example, one day of shooting on a secluded beach at Point Dune in triple-digit temperature found us climbing over a 100-foot rise up to 50-feet-high jagged rock formations jutting precariously over the ocean's swell. One false move and it could literally have been curtains. Imagine how tough that must have been for the crew to lug the cameras and other heavy equipment over such terrain.
I would write of the endurance necessary to make a film, the worth of doing something magical in preparation for something bigger. In this case, GOOD SOIL is a prequel to Shimahara's next production, a film that will deal with Jinbei's son Amakusa, the famed Shimbara Rebellion, and three major battles, swordfights that will truly test Koyamada's martial arts abilities.
Koyamada's background in karate and kung-fu was featured in a previous article in kungfumagazine.com about his film, WENDY WU: HOMECOMING WARRIOR. Yet, in that movie and even in THE LAST SAMURAI, in which he was supposed to have a few swordfights, his weapon prowess was not tested. GOOD SOIL is also a prequel for his swordsmanship, the foundation for which was being laid by my double broadswords.
"The weapon is just an extension of the hand and I have a foundation in karate, kung-fu and kendo, and I believe that the foundations are all the same and one can adjust to the movements of different arts and weapons. I have also learned iado, cutting grass mats, and some aikido, and so I feel I have a basic understanding of the samurai sword. And now I've had some sword training for GOOD SOIL and that helps me understand the way to choreograph the sword fights.
"So in the next film, I see myself finally fighting a lot with the samurai sword, specifically with two samurai swords. To do this is a symbol to me, because I love doing twin broadswords and also because Musashi Miyamoto was born in the same city as me (Okayama) and he was also a double swordsman."
Part of Koyamada's interest in practicing several different martial arts is not to become a mixed martial arts practitioner, but to gain an understanding of the different kinds of arts for a much bigger picture, a purpose that very few in the martial arts world aspire to. It is all part of Koyamada's goal in martial arts to show that regardless of race, nationality and style, we are all brothers of the martial arts, and, if unified, could have a stronger positive effect on the younger generations of the world.
"Martial arts is a spiritual journey, each style has its own journey but we all have the same goal, so I conclude that as martial artists we are all family. My path in unifying the martial artists of the world has started with what I call the "Masters' Dinner" where I invited several different martial arts masters from Japanese, Korean, Chinese and other martial arts, not tell them what I was doing, invite them to dinner, put these masters together and have them talk. They all came to the same conclusion at the end of the dinner?they are all family. We have to make the martial arts community better. They all have their own pride, and I was like a middleman to bring them all together so they could face each other man-to-man, sit around a table and talk about martial arts. I also learn great wisdom from these masters.
"This is my main focus in martial arts, to pass on this message, the way, the journey and once you start something and find the reason why, the motivation, the goal, the purpose, and once you know the purpose, do it and pass it on. I have 70 years to go, to make this a community and an environment that people from all martial arts feel comfortable with each other. Martial arts has given me a reason to understand myself and from that we can all respect each other, find common ground, and create harmony with each other and our nations, and with that?who knows what can happen."
- Photos of swords, armour, artifacts & implements from the Shimabara Castle Museum (Note the battle flag bearing two angels adoring the Eucharist, and the words, "Praised be the Most Holy Sacrament" in Portuguese)
- Documentary Preview (video)
- Hidden Christians - Japan [below]: