One of the ways in which people contextualize themselves within society is by their ideological persuasions. Ideology acts as an internalized code of ethics, morals, principles and ideals through which people build an identity. In this process, we instinctually seek out people and things that uphold our beliefs while averting those that don’t. This can be quite polarizing. It’s easy to misunderstand or even fear other perspectives when you’ve constructed walls around yourself to keep them out. That’s why sometimes the best way to gain an understanding of another perspective is through storytelling. By removing the weight of reality, stories can leave us open to considering ideas that we might instantly reject in other contexts.
Given my own ideological persuasions, I was trepidatious about watching Silence when recommended to me. A film about unwelcome Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan hiding from a regime under which Buddhism is decree? Neither side of that struggle sounded like one I could root for or identify with. Indeed, this mindset echoed within the movie-going public and helped cause the film to flop in theaters last year despite widespread praise from critics. If it hadn’t been for the combination of Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair, a great cast and my general interest in Japan, I may not have watched the film. However, after doing so I was able to contextualize the morality of its factions and– even if I may not agree– empathize.
To be clear: I’m an atheist, even if I’ve come to despise the masquerading that some do on behalf of the term (the whole idea of atheism is that it’s non-belief in gods and religion; it’s not something to parade around as if a religion in its own right). Christianity and Buddhism are ideologies that I do not associate with or believe in. Muddying matters further, Jesuit priests going to a country they aren’t welcome in to spread their beliefs out of a false sense of morality is at face value something I’m entirely opposed to. Going into the film, I’m predisposed to have contempt for both sides, particularly the film’s missionary protagonists; even if you take the religious element out of the story, they’re still invaders.
And yet I came to care about the priest characters, not because I believed in their purpose but because of how the film framed the world around them. Instead of justifying the actions of the priests, it instead portrays the imperial Japanese empire as brutish and relentless, constantly exercising new torturous ways to make examples out of killing Christian infidels. While multiple scenes in the film’s third act in particular shine a light on the Japanese ruling class’ perspective– that Buddhism is inseparably ingrained in Japanese culture and Christians posed a thread to the very fabric of their society– they’re ultimately painted as oppressors. Lo and behold, our natural instinct as humans is to defy oppression. We seek free will. Watching one side of a conflict– even if they’re technically on the defense– brutally murder and suppress while the other acts peacefully is going to make your average audience member view the peaceful instigators positively. It’s just how we’re wired to instinctually react.
What makes this all palatable to outsider views is that while the characters narrate themselves as wandering saviors adhering to a moral code, the film questions those morals at every turn. Examples of this are the scene I previously alluded to between our main priest and the Imperator, and another wherein the priest finally meets with a missionary captured and converted 15 years prior who now believes as the Imperator does that Japanese culture and Christianity are incompatible. In a climactic scene, the priest must step on a fumi-e (a slab with a crucifix carved into it), committing apostasy in order to save a group of Japanese Christians facing torture and death. His story ends with him having betrayed the faith he so deeply believed in, which is to say that this isn’t a film looking to reaffirm the beliefs of any ideology but rather present a pseudo-accurate portrayal of a conflict.
In that moment where the priest commits apostasy we’re able to empathize because it becomes a question of one being forced to give up their ideology, or more importantly, their identity. People of any worldview can relate to how it would feel to have the things they love be suppressed by society. A relevant example to many readers of this blog is how many in Western culture have a misconception of what anime is and as such some feel the need to keep their passion for the medium discreet. Sure, the ramifications for enjoying anime may not be violent nor is it being imposed by a ruling power, but expressing your love for it could come with scorn by those around them who misunderstand it. Point is, in our own ways we can relate and thus empathize. The broader concept of forced conformism is one that transcends religious connotations. Context becomes secondary.
As previously stated, storytelling mediums are perhaps the best way to humanize conflicting ideologies explicitly because they aren’t real. Even a story steeped in non-fiction such as Silence works in this regard because we’re watching a writer’s embellished retelling of events that very likely played out quite differently from how they’re being presented (non-fiction is very much fiction, but let’s explore this in future). Through the emotional distance created by blurred reality, we’re able to remove our own code of morals from what’s being displayed and thus role-play. It’s what makes anti-heroes work; by feeling no moral quandary in pretending to be something else for a few hours we can bend our minds to justify somebody’s actions and, if the material is well crafted, come to an understanding about why they are how they are. I may never see eye-to-eye with a religious missionary, but I can understand how their own moral code drives them to believe their actions righteous, such as how my own moral code would makes me feel the same. I came to see them as fallible human beings like the rest of us.
All of this is to say that Silence and stories like it that challenge my own ideological stances hold an important value to me. They’re the types of media that can widen my own grasp of other people and ideas. I may not have walked away from the film with my mind changed in the slightest, nor was it the film’s goal to convince people on the merits of missionaries and their ideologies, but that comes secondary to developing a mutual understanding on a human level. While storytelling does bring with it embellishment and as such can’t be directly applied to reality, taking a look at another walk of life in any regard can be eye-opening in its own right.