In Japanese movie ‘Silence’, Christianity in 17th century Japan gets the Buddhist treatment

51384-ipvndonemw-1487018501The 1971 version by Masahiro Shinoda successfully integrates the visions of the novelist and film director.

Narrative cinema has the ability to take a descriptive story and translate it into images and sounds that can be enjoyed in themselves. In the case of a literary adaptation, the descriptive power of these images and sounds is related to the degree of elaboration that the author offers in the original novel. A filmmaker chooses a particular novel only if the themes of the novel and the concerns of the author match his/her own cinematographic concerns.

This is most certainly the case with Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence (1971), a precursor to Martin Scorsese version that is being released on February 17. Silence, based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel by the same name, is about the gross violations committed by the Japanese in the 17th century against Christianity. The film centres on a priest, Rodrigues, and his struggles with the local feudal lords (the daimyo) and warrior communities (the samurai), until he is forced to give up his own faith. Rodrigues’s battle is played off against a Japanese Christian, Kichijiro, who voluntary gives up his faith.

Shinoda’s Silence is a successful adaptation primarily because the filmmaker’s concerns are the same as those of the novelist. Endo, a Catholic who suffered persecution in Japan, uses the diaristic form to describe the circumstances that lead to the conditions in which the novel plays out. This is most suited to Shinoda, who believed his cinema to be one of the catalysts in pitting the individual against the community.

The diaristic form points to the act of writing. Shinoda transforms this concern into speech, with Rodrigues speaking out lines from his diary in the lush Japanese countryside. The director often translates Endo’s descriptive passages into spoken dialogue, as if to suggest that cinema is a medium of showing and not telling.

Shinoda’s conception of cinema is one in which the figure is subsumed into the landscape. Much like Endo’s novel, Shinoda’s film is eventually Buddhist in form, as it puts forth a vision in which the elements of nature are to be worshipped. This Zen-like approach makes the concerns of communicating the sufferings of the Christians seem paradoxical, for the film in itself takes a paganistic approach to the content.

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