Sunday, January 29, 2017

Some off-hand thoughts on the movie, Silence

I read the novel Silence by the Japanese Catholic author, Shusaku Endo, years ago when I lived in Japan. He's called the "Japanese Graham Greene." With good reason. Like Greene, he's a darn good novelist. Also like Greene, his Catholicism in his writings is ambiguous. I don't hold that against him as a novelist. Some of my favorite Catholic novelists are also ambiguous about the Catholic faith in their writings, even though they are clearly and intentionally Catholic, like Walker Percy or Evelyn Waugh.

I read many, many reviews of Martin Scorsese's film based on Endo's novel, also called "Silence." One of the best on the critical side, I thought, was Monica Migliorino Miller's "Scorsese's Silence: Many Martyrs -- Little Redemption" (Crisis, January 9, 2017). But there were others that were also good on the appreciative side.

Personally, I liked the movie Silence. I think it was very well done. Whatever Endo's and Scorsese's motives, I think they both dealt powerfully with two things: (1) the exquisitely horrific tortures underwent by Catholics in Japan before the Meiji Restoration, and (2) the diabolically insidious temptations to apostasy that can make infidelity to Christ itself look like fidelity and virtue.

The latter theme of the movie, which I think most Christian audiences thought most significant, I think were (mis-?)understood in two ways: (a) by the 'liberals' as proclaiming a gospel of merciful accommodation indifferent to doctrine, and (b) by 'conservatives' as a message of doctrinal compromise intended by both Endo's novel and Scorsese's film.

I'm not at all certain that the latter is true. Whether it is or not, I think that not only the temptations but the consequences of apostasy were shown by both novel and film in a faithful light: the temptations were beyond ingenious, with the voice of Jesus seeming to come from His image on the fumie itself ("Step on me.") as if Christ Himself were counseling the mercy of apostasy as the path to redemption; and both apostate priests ended their lives by faded into oblivion, morphing into gollum-like shadows of themselves; and the Japanese Catholics (not all, but many) who witnessed their apostasy were significantly demoralized by it.

Remarkably, however, when Catholic priests returned to Japan after the Meiji Restoration of the mid-nineteenth century, they encountered Kakure Kurishitan (hidden Christians) who came out of hiding once again to present rosaries and crucifixes and statues of Maria Kanon that doubled as secret images of the Madonna, showing that the Faith had not been entirely wiped out. The price of persecution as well as apostasy was high. Only something like one tenth of 1% of Japanese people are Christians, and of these, half (about 509,000) are Catholic.

Some of you may remember the movie, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. One of the young samurai actors in the film was Shin Koyamada, who only discovered during the making of that film that his ancestors were among the Kakure Kurishitan. So moved was he by the narrative of persecution and Catholic resistance during the Shimabara Rebellion, that he ventured to make film about those events in which he played the father of Shiro Amakusa, the leader of that rebellion (see my review here with a trailer of the film, "Good Soil").

Another recent discovery is the book, A Christian Samurai: The Trials of Baba Bunko, William J. Farge, SJ., which contradicts the generally held belief among Western historians that the Catholic mission in Japan ended in failure. Farge relates how Christian moral teachings not only survived the long period of persecution but influenced Japanese society throughout the Tokugawa period. Baba Bunko was a Japanese Catholic essayist and satirist whose biting criticism of the authorities of his time eventually led to his execution; but he was brazenly bold in asserting his views, declaring, for example, that a representation of the Eucharist would be a more fitting symbol for Japan than the coat of arms of the emperor and insignia of the shogun.

Gotta run.

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