Today, we watched, as planned, the film ‘Silence’ (2016).
There are several reasons why I chose to show this film for this year’s GSP. The first reason has, of course, to do with the setting, Japan, and the relative popularity in Japan and abroad of the director, Martin Scorsese, and the author of the novel on which the film is based: Endō Shūsaku. It was almost guaranteed that the film would be good; which it was. The second reason is related to the subject matter: the encounter between the Jesuits and Japan. Unfortunately, it is during these violent periods of history that the fundamental issues arising out of human encounters come to the fore in their clearest form. I think the film manages to depict such an encounter in a spectacular manner. The third reason is much simpler: one of my PhD supervisors was Professor Mark B. Williams, who is an authority on the literature of Endō Shūsaku, and whose ‘Readings in Japanese’ class at the University of Leeds was mostly spent translating passages of ‘Silence’ from Japanese to English.
Besides these reasons, I thought of sharing some more thoughts on the film, although I am no film critic nor media studies specialist. Yet, it is probably important to locate the film within the learning objectives of this course. If you have not watched the film yet, do not worry, I am not going to spoil it for you. I will remain as abstract as possible. So, please, keep reading.
First, let us talk (briefly!) about the elephant in the room: religion. From the perspective of religious studies, the film goes back to some basic questions that continue to preoccupy academic discourse since perhaps the establishment of this academic field in the 19th century. What is religion without “specialists” (such as priests, monks etc.) and without practice (such as prayer, ritual etc.)? Is religion only about faith? Is religion related to culture and to what extent can it be culture-bound? And the film goes, of course, even deeper, shaking some of the grounds of Christianity itself: who do Christians believe Jesus sacrificed himself for? What is the purpose of the act of confession? What were the motives and reasoning of the priests who preached (and continue to preach) the Gospel around the world? And the like…If you are interested in religion, perhaps this reading might make you think a bit more about religion in general and religion in Japan, in particular.
Many of the Jesuits in this film are depicted as believing that they hold a ‘universal’ truth, which they cannot imagine being otherwise from how they understand the world. This conviction seems to sometimes prevent them from learning more about the local culture, at least no more than what they need to convey and convince locals about their ‘ truth.’ On the other hand, the official Japanese policy seems to be that of particularism, namely the idea that Japan is unique, and therefore non-Japanese ideas cannot be perfectly understood (as Ferreira argued) or take root (as Inoue-sama argued) in Japan. This bifurcation, between universalism and particularism, between people believing that there is a universal way of looking at things and people who believe that some things can only be understood by those of a certain culture/nation/ ethnicity, consists of the most fundamental issue of cross-cultural encounters. We all, at some point in our lives, find ourselves espousing the one or the other end of this continuum, without realizing that, of course, things are much more complicated than that. Simply put, the first objective of this course is to help participants become aware that both universalism and particularism are extreme ways of thinking that produce more problems than they solve. How can we overcome them? And how can we do this in the case of local development?
Hopefully the film illustrated this issue and hopefully, for those who watched it, it made them think about this and other aspects of cross- cultural encounters.