Review: Films Set In Japan – Silence (2016)

A couple of foreign guys embark on a journey to Japan in search of something or someone but before you roll your eyes at the thought of yet another fish-out-of-water film please know that this is very different. It’s an extremely unconventional film that rides against the tide of what is the Hollywood norm for this is the latest effort from Martin Scorsese and the setting is 17th century Japan at a time when the suppression of Japanese Roman Catholics was rife.

Two Portuguese priests played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver receive disturbing news that their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith and so they hop in a boat and come to Japan with an alcoholic Japanese fisherman called Kichijiro as a guide. They want to know if he’s still alive and to help other locals who are trying to believe in Christianity whilst facing hostility from Japanese buddhists for their beliefs.

Admittedly, I had no idea about about Christianity in Japan until I went to Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall in Kyushu a few years ago. The city is the site of the Christian rebellion in the 17th century whereby the surviving Christians continued to practice their faith in secret despite persecution.

Obviously I could’ve seen this in the cinema when it came out last year (January release in Japan) but was not only put off by its topic but by the near three hour running time. Instead I earmarked it as one to watch on DVD where I could get subtitles, pause it and rewind those moments when I fall asleep! Inevitably I forgot all about it until recently when I watched it in two parts and to be fair it really was more interesting that I anticipated. 

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Just the fact that it’s a Martin Scorsese film with some big names carries some weight and this is an emotionally powerful movie. It has the look and feel of Kurosawa’s ‘Ran‘ (1985) and like that, it certainly doesn’t hurry along and there are inevitably some occasional lulls.

The story is easy to follow despite the clashing of languages. There are scenes of long dialogue particularly after two hours when the characters of Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson finally meet. Despite featuring more prominently than Garfield in the promotional stuff for the film, Neeson’s special set of skills are stripped away and he is used very sparingly. Garfield, who only ever says “arigatou gozaimasu” in Japanese, is really good and shines throughout as Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues. Ironically, his next role in ‘Hacksaw Ridge‘ (2016) was also a religious one that was set (though not filmed!) in Japan!

Silence‘ too was not filmed in Japan for Taiwan doubled up as the Nagasaki locations. It is beautifully shot despite the constraints of some restricted areas like captivity, small huts and so on. Perhaps a more redeeming feature of this film for me though was the soundtrack as there really isn’t any music at all. Fans of the ambient genre may disagree with that for there are lots of sounds from the natural environment. Given the title of the movie it’s not so surprising that there is no typical music score!

The Christians are remarkably strong in their beliefs and devotion and won’t let anything stand in their way. Whilst I can’t personally relate to the religious theme I can certainly sympathise with their power struggles and crisis of faith as they are worn down. Having been driven underground, the two protagonists can only go down to the village when it’s dark to see their fellow Christians and listen to their confessions.

The Inquisitor sounds like an antagonistic character from a super-hero film (there was actually a character with this name in season one of ‘Star Wars Rebels‘) but here he is an old Samurai with a very strange accent who searches for suspected Christians. I wasn’t too sure of him but overall the acting is pretty good, particularly Yōsuke Kubozuka as the perplexing Kichijiro who pops up time and time again in a kind of Judas role. Driver’s role as Francisco Garupe is mainly just for the first hour when the two stars separate although he does return briefly later on without his top on showing off a body that was seen more recently in ‘The Last Jedi‘ (2017).

When captured they are asked to betray their Christian faith by stepping on a picture of Jesus which is then upgraded to spitting on the cross. Only Kichijiro does it and is the only one to survive. The rest are given sake, hung on crosses and left to get battered by the waves of the ocean continuously hitting them whilst the other villagers remain silent on the beach as it all unfolds. Watching those Christians suffer from such torture shows the power of faith and how people cling so strongly to their beliefs till the bitter end. They really are willing to endure whatever it takes in the name of what they believe and in an essence that is what ‘Silence‘ is all about or it gives you food for thought anyway!

If you get into the real depth of the film then it’s about politics, religion, pride, faith and spirituality in the face of persecution and suffering whilst unable to get a response to prayers from the almighty one whose silence is deafening. Scorsese had a story to tell and he tells it without too much compromise for people like me. It was certainly intellectually challenging which is indeed quite rare for films and my faith was certainly tested for the 161 minute duration!

Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10

About tokyofox

A Leicester City fan teaching English in Japan
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