Van C. Gessel introduced the film Silence at BYU’s International Cinema and discussed the novel, the history of the film and the universality of the Christian themes found in the story.
PROVO, Utah (Mar. 21, 2017)—Van C. Gessel, Japanese professor and former dean of the College of Humanities at BYU, introduced the film Silence prior to it being shown at the International Cinema. Silence follows two Portuguese Catholic priests, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, into Japan at a time when being a Christian in Japan was punishable by torture and death.
“It has been a long, long road getting this film here to BYU,” Gessel said. “This is a story I have been involved with through my life and my career for 45 years, and one that has had a profound impact on my own thinking about what it means to be a true Christian.”
The film Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the novel by the same name written by famous Japanese author Shusaku Endo, with whom Gessel had a close working relationship for 20 years. “The most important influence on Endo’s life was his mother,” Gessel said. “[When] she became a very devout Catholic, [she] urged her boys to follow likewise and be baptized.” Endo was 12 at the time of his baptism. Gessel said, “He would later describe his literary career as an attempt to take the very ill-fitting suit of Western clothing that his mother had dressed him in and re-tailor it to fit his Japanese body. Much of that really plays itself out in the novel Silence.”
Throughout his life, Endo struggled with poor health, specifically weak lungs. The night before his third surgery, which the doctors told him could likely end in death, a friend brought Endo an image of Christ that was used in the early 17th century by the Japanese government in their persecution of Christians in Japan. The picture was carved into stone or wood and suspected Christians were forced to “trample” the image of Christ to prove they were not Catholic or renounce their faith.
“The significance of the imagery was very crucial to them,” Gessel explained, “and having to step on the image was tantamount to stepping on the face of Christ. It was an absolute act of terrible heresy. Seeing this moved Endo greatly.” He survived his surgery, and during and after his recovery, he dedicated himself to researching the time of Christian persecution in Japan. Silence takes place in 1640, during that time period.
The book was extremely popular in Japan and abroad, making it on Harper Collins’ list of the 100 best spiritual books of the 20th century. Martin Scorsese was one of many moved by the novel and decided he wanted to make it into a film. He bought the rights and met with Endo to discuss the story. Then, Gessel said, “Ten years passed. Twenty years passed.” Every few years, Gessel said, an announcement would be made that Scorsese’s next film would be Silence. “And then,” he said, “it wasn’t. So they’d say it again. And it wasn’t. And many were beginning to doubt that he was ever really going to get around [to it].”
In 2011, Gessel, who had by that point translated many of Endo’s novels to English and done extensive scholarship on the novel Silence, got an email from Scorsese’s chief research assistant asking for his help on the film. He agreed, but it was two years before he heard from her that Scorsese was finally ready to make the film. He wondered why he was being asked for help from such a prominent figure in the film industry, but later discovered, “Mr. Scorsese had learned from some of the things that I had published . . . that there are some significant problems in the published English translation of the novel.”
“Think about this for a minute,” Gessel exclaimed. “This is one of the great directors, if not the great director of our day. And he was concerned about being scrupulously faithful to the original novel. But how do you stay true to a book when you’re reading a flawed translation?” Gessel explained that over the next three years he exchanged hundreds of emails with Scorsese’s team, clarifying what the original Japanese said. The clarifications ranged from if an insect in one scene was a moth or another bug to “some things that seriously affect the meaning, the interpretation,” of the story, Gessel explained.
One of those more significant things is the Japanese word Endo used for “apostatize.” “For me,” Gessel said, “apostatize is a pretty strong word. Pretty harsh, pretty final. But in Japanese, it just means to fall down, to trip and fall, with the great likelihood that you’re going to . . . get back . . . on your feet. And this happens to the character over and over and over again in the novel.” Gessel believes that concept is representative of the experience of every believing, imperfect Christian that falls and must get back up on the path to Christ.
Gessel explained that the character most representative of this idea is a Japanese man named Kichijiro. “He has fallen. But he keeps coming back. He keeps begging for forgiveness of his sins.”
Although the camera focuses on the two Western priests, Gessel urged the audience to pay attention to the Japanese peasants, especially Kichijiro, who have practiced their religion in the midst of persecution and without the guidance of a priest.
Gessel asked the concluding question, “How significant is Kichijiro, the repeated fallen one through this whole story? Mr. Endo said, ‘Kichijiro is me.’ Kichijiro by the end of the film is also [Father] Rodrigues. Kichijiro is also Martin Scorsese. And we’ll just leave open the possibility that Kichijiro is also me.”
—Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)
Olivia covers events for the International Cinema. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.