Having finally got round to seeing Scorsese’s much-discussed epic of Christian martyrdom in feudal Japan, I found it appropriate, if not necessary to offer some comments on what is undoubtedly a very complex and nuanced tale. For the sake of brevity, I won’t expound on the background setting of the movie, which in any case has already been laid out by Nathaniel Hayward on a previous review, which can be found here. With that said, I shall get right to the heart of the matter.
Despite a Guardian reviewer’s lambasting of the motion picture as a lionizing hagiography of Jesuits with a “white-saviour” complex , I found that rather than triumphalist, the missionary protagonists in many ways came across as psychologically unprepared and ultimately naively proud figures. More precisely, this was the case at least in the stories of Father Rodrigues and Father Ferrera. Both of whom ultimately break down precisely at the point at which their faith is tested by the prospect of martyrdom, theirs and that of the Japanese faithful.
Many commentators have closed in on the problem of evil which infuses the conceptual atmosphere of the film, namely in God’s silence during much of the horrific campaign of persecution conducted by the Japanese authorities. Apart from brief exhortations of apostasy to Rodrigues in his moment of trial, God simply doesn’t seem to directly interfere at any point, and even then, we’re not sure who indeed was behind the disembodied voice that manifested in the crucial moment leading up to Fr. Rodrigues’ fateful decision to renounce the faith. What no one seems to have asked, on the other hand, is where was the Father of Lies in all this?
I’d say that one in particular, was quite talkative throughout, finding a particularly articulate interlocutor in the shape of Fr. Rodrigues’ translator, masterfully played by Tadanobu Asano. The ingenious purveyor of a persistent taunting, the translator appears in the film possessing a strong familiarity with Rodrigues’ native language, and accompanies him through a series of psychological torments.
In his person, we find practically all the siren calls which eventually made their way into Rodrigues’ fragile psyche, and which curiously remain unchanged even to this day, as they are repeated by the opponents of Christianity. At their first meeting, there’s the accusation that the young Jesuit is arrogant for claiming to speak of a universal truth, which concludes in not so much a counter-argument as an affirmation of cultural relativism disguised as concern for the preservation of his own culture.
This sets the tone of their interactions for the remainder of the story, where Rodrigues’ is figuratively put on trial for atrocities he didn’t commit, and continually lambasted for being the source of the suffering of the Japanese faithful, for introducing them to a foreign religion, and refusing (at least initially) to give up his message. Of course, the enlightened Interpreter hounds Rodrigues at every turn, merely in the name of peace and tolerance, hoping for a kind of ecumenical meeting with Buddhism which, at that point, was also a path well-trod by the apostate Ferrera.
The Interpreter’s case, is in a larger sense representative of the Japanese authorities in general, whose preoccupation perhaps is more with power and preservation of the status quo than anything else. This is seen in the repeated demands, frequented on the native faithful and the priests alike, that they trample on images of Christ as a “mere formality”, so that the persecution they themselves carry out may be brought to a halt. The act of apostasy is not encouraged at the behest of another faith (though the Buddhist authorities certainly viewed the Christians as a threat), but as a means of snuffing out any potential rival claim on the loyalty of the peasants where the State was concerned.
The parallel here with instances of state absolutism in the West, in a time much closer to ours than that of 17th century Japan, are obvious, and in a way understandable. The refrain remains very much the same, where in many cases, calls for tolerance and affirmations of a form of relativism remain the pleasant front of a machinery of political power that is ultimately forceful in its maintenance of the monopoly of authority. “What holds true of Portugal and Spain, is not so in Japan” says the Inquisitor to a captive Rodrigues, who unsure in himself can only manage to mumble vain retorts to his interrogator. Today we might hear “if you don’t support abortions, don’t have them, but let each have their own subjective ‘truth’ on the matter”.
In an answer to the question posed before, of God’s whereabouts amid the suffering and persecution, we might perhaps say that He was in the faces of the Japanese martyrs and Fr Garrpe, who unlike Fr Rodrigues and Ferrera, never succumbed to the temptation of apostasy, but persevered to the very end. Philosopher Paul Tyson, once wrote enlightening words on the nature of Christianity and its relation to the secular powers, “the theology of the Kingdom of Heaven is in clear defiance of the authority of the very visible kingdoms of the earth; and the claim that Jesus is Lord is an obviously defiant relativisation against the claim- backed up by violent power and imperial cultus- that Caesar is Lord”.
In an interesting exchange between the Inquisitor and Rodrigues, at a wine and dine charm offensive to once again test the latter, he conjures an analogy of Japan’s relations with the European countries, as being akin to a man who is being pursued by four jealous concubines, namely Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands. Rodrigues counters that perhaps the man should choose only one, to be his wife, to which the Inquisitor assumes to be Portugal. The young Jesuit however clarifies that by that he means “Holy Church”, which is distinct from those countries. This is a proposal that is laughed off by the Inquisitor, who sees this suitor as an “ugly and barren woman”; in this perhaps we see that in terms of what I referred to before, the relation between the heavenly and the earthly powers that crucially, the Inquisitor’s perspective and that of pre-apostasy Rodrigues are in drastic contrast.
These are considerations of great importance to the drama and dilemma captured in Scorsese’s film, and our response to them will determine our reception to the actions taken by the characters. We can praise Rodrigues, and by extension Ferrera, for their pity and ultimately very pragmatic decision to abandon their mission to save the lives of their flock and their own- alternatively we might describe them as the anti-witnesses of the Church Hesitant. Or we can decry the fanaticism of Fr. Garrpe, and the ultimately suicidal delusion of the peasants who chose death over renunciation of the message they received- or alternatively we might describe them as the witnesses of the Church Militant, faithful to the claim that Jesus is indeed Lord, and not Caesar, nor Shogun.