Silence (1971), dir. Shinoda Masahiro


Perhaps the most striking and memorable works of the Japanese New Wave dealt with modern society – formal experimentation, sexual liberation, gun-toting yakuza, but often these films focused upon Japan’s history, at the crossroads between feudalism, military imperialism, American occupation and technological modernity that have shaped Japan so profoundly in the past six decades. Adapted from Endō Shūsaku’s 1966 novel, Shinoda’s version of Silence differs most notably from Scorsese’s magnum opus in its sense of timing. Released five years after the novel’s publication and during Endō’s lifetime, Scorsese was instead involved in pre-production for two-and-a-half decades, refining each element alongside his most trusted collaborators, screenwriter Jay Cocks and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Alongside their joint affiliation to major cinematic movements (Japanese New Wave, New Hollywood), both directors worked within major national studios (Toho, Paramount) to bring their work to the screen. Shinoda doesn’t approach Silence with the theological and Catholic underpinning that made Scorsese’s film a sermon in the most positive way, placing the viewer within the depths of spiritual meditation on this world, faith and the next world.

Japanese cinema, before and since Rashōmon (1950), has been impacted by its perception both domestically and abroad and encouraging cultural dialogue, placing Silence in an interesting position with its exploration of cultural conflict with Buddhism, the homogenisation of western values and moral authority. Shinoda places audience identification within the plight and suffering of the Japanese people, highlighting the true brutality of religious repression: bodies drowning, horses marching upon heads buried in the sand, mass executions. We shift between scenes spoken in Shinoda’s native Japanese, overdubbed dialogue and exchanges spoken in English within the priests’ private company (with Japanese subtitles embedded within the bottom of the frame). The decision to cast Ferreira (Tamba Tetsurō) in ‘whiteface’ might seem ill conceived, but it becomes a visual representation of these ethnic and religious conflicts: a white European from Portugal, taking the name and wife of a Japanese man, literally taking a Japanese body and replacing it with whiteness; Shinoda does not need to be literal.

Although unable to display wide expanses of nature as cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto achieved so wonderfully in Scorsese’s film, in the tighter 1:33.1 frame (following a long tradition of Japanese cinema) many of Scorsese’s best elements are present through Miyagawa Kazuo’s wonderful cinematography of landscapes, sunsets and found and painted objects. Combined with stretches of meditative scenes, montages and juxtaposing Takemitsu Tōru’s violent, contradictory music against the natural soundscape, Shinoda pushes a more experimental dimension, as though the radicalism of the 1960s is not so far apart from the shogunate. Just as the Bible can have multiple texts with no definitive version (the King James, the American International, its original language and stories), so too can these alternative versions of Silence co-exist: on screen, in imagination and in prose. (Scorsese even lifts his film’s logo and typography from Shinoda’s Silence.) Between Japanese and English, Shinoda and Scorsese, sentences and images convey the same meaning but in different ways. Not all of the performances are perfect, but it is nonetheless visually striking.

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