Latest News > Martin Scorsese and Shusaku Endo’s ‘Silence’
Shusaku Endo – born on 27 March 1923 in Tokyo – moved with his family to Dailan in Manchuria while still very young. He stayed there until the age of 10 when his mother took him back to Japan after divorcing his father. After returning to Japan to live in Kobe with his mother and an aunt, those early years in Manchuria may have created in Endo a sense of alienation from mainstream Japanese culture that profoundly affected him. The defining moment of his life, however, was his baptism as a Catholic in 1934. His struggles to reconcile himself with a faith that was and still is very much a minority in Japan, his experiences as an outsider and with hospitalization for pleurisy and tuberculosis – all of these deeply impacted his sensibilities and thematic preoccupations as a novelist.
Endo’s books often grapple with moral themes, and his Catholicism is an undercurrent even when it is not the main topic of the novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, Endo’s work is often compared to that of Graham Greene – indeed, Greene himself admired Endo, writing that, “Endo to my mind is one of the finest living novelists.”
Peter Owen also regards Shusaku Endo as one of the greatest novelists he has published, and the two men often corresponded and visited one another and developed an enduring friendship. Endo (1923-1996) was nominated for the
Nobel Prize for literature several times but, although he won several other prestigious awards, the Nobel eluded him. Discussing this, Peter Owen has said that, aside from Endo’s position as an outsider, the Japanese authorities were unhappy that the subject matter of some of his historical novels discussed sensitive subjects that are still considered controversial. The Sea and Poison (1957) is based on Japanese war crimes that included the vivisection of captured American airmen, whilst his masterpiece Silence (1966) concerns the ruthless persecution of 17th century Christians in Japan.
“Always I feel very sad when I have to say farewell to you. I truly appreciate you for your efforts of making me an international writer in the last ten years.”
— letter to Peter Owen from Shusaku Endo, 8th May 1985
Martin Scorsese, famed for his films about crime, violence and the lives of gangsters, might seem an odd candidate to champion a Catholic Japanese writer, but Scorsese – who wrote the introduction to the 2007 edition of Silence published by Peter Owen – has shown an interest in films on spiritual themes since the 1980s, culminating in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Kundun (1997), his film about the early life of the present Dalai Lama. Scorsese writes that, since discovering the novel in the late 1980s, Silence “has become increasingly precious to me as the years have gone by,” and concludes that “I’ve reread it countless times since, and I am now preparing to adapt it as a film. It has given me a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art.”
However, this long-cherished film project has taken a long time to come to fruition and some might even say it is jinxed. A piece in Variety from 2009, two years after Scorsese originally penned his introduction, proclaims his determination to make Silence his next directorial project with Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio Del Toro, and Gael Garcia Bernal starring. Fast forward another few years and several films (and lawsuits) later, it was announced in 2013 that Scorsese would begin shooting Silence in July 2014 with a new cast including Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver. Tadanobu Asano joined the cast after Ken Watanabe had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Filming in Taiwan was officially due to begin on 30 January 2015– decades after the film was first conceived. Things have not been plain sailing, however. On the 29 January, BBC News announced that a set construction worker had been killed and two others injured when a ceiling collapsed on them. The report describes Scorsese’s sadness and shock at the death, but goes on to say that the film is expected to shoot to schedule and will be released in 2016.
Scorsese is certain to overcome the final difficulties and realise his long-held ambition to bring Silence to the screen. In the meantime, thanks to Peter Owen’s championing of the work of Shusaku Endo, the literary masterpiece that inspired Martin Scorsese is available for all of us to enjoy along with several others of Endo’s novels. Among these are Foreign Studies, Volcano, Scandal, The Samurai, When I Whistle, and Wonderful Fool.
James Nye on behalf of Peter Owen.