Books to films

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

The 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.

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Silence (1971).

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.

For Shinoda, the struggle is not between an individual and his faith but between the individual and nature. Cinema has the ability to transform words into spaces. Shinoda’s approach to space is closer to a documentary. He carefully places the camera at a distance, almost making nature a character with the landscape as its face. This is communicated in a carefully constructed colour scheme. Whereas Christianity is communicated through man-made warm tones such as reds and light browns, the Buddhist elements of nature are communicated in cool greens and blues. This creates a number of interesting juxtapositions. The figure of Christ, represented by Rodrigues, is invariably dressed in an inorganic red and placed in a natural background comprising cool tones.

Shinoda’s cinema often crossed genres, evading easy classification. Silence nestles within the jidai-geki, or the historical drama genre. Jidai-geki uses historical content, with the lead character, invariably the samurai, presenting a vision of contemporary Japanese society. In Silence, the intolerance of the Buddhists is pitted against the fate of Rodrigues, who becomes the opposite of what he seems to preach, thus underlining the hypocrisy of Japanese mores.

The film uses variable techniques and approaches to tell Endo’s story. The documentary style of naturalism is juxtaposed with architectural interiority, and the two create a tension that translates into a cinematic grid, with light serving as its basis. The ending, which contradicts Rodrigues’s ideas on fidelity, is communicated through freeze frames belonging to that most anarchic mode of film-making – the avant-garde or experimental approach.

Although Silence was a successful adaptation on most counts, Shinoda, an atheist, changed the ending of Endo’s text to the author’s chagrin. Shinoda could not engage with Endo’s belief of Christianity as a universal religion. The ending of the book is deeply religious, but Shinoda translates this religiosity in sexual terms.

Silence is a masterpiece for its ability to translate the novel’s concerns at the level of content into cinematographic concerns at the level of form. Most importantly, it is able to integrate the visions of the novelist and film director with the vision of cinema to produce a satisfying cinematic experience that transcends mere storytelling.

Silence (1971).
Silence (1971).
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