Christians are a minority in Japan, but a very active one. They have a difficult history characterised by persecution and conflict both with the authorities and with the most widespread religion, Buddhism, because it is difficult to convert Buddhist monks, whose faith is no less steadfast and deep seated than that of Christians. […] Recently we have also witnessed the discovery, amongst the assets of the Salesians, of a Japanese-Italian film, silent but with adequate intertitles, shot in 1931 in Japan on behalf of the Salesian order. The film evokes the martyrdom of twenty-six Christians – six Franciscans and three Jesuits from Europe alongside seventeeen Third Order Japanese, including one child to whom the film devotes much attention, as it does to a converted thief who becomes the first victim of the persecution. […] The purpose of this film, shot in Japan by Tomiyasu Ikeda in 1931, is explicit and self-evident. […] Great documentary sequences introduce the spectator to a culture far removed from that of the West with respectful precision – and long before we came to know Japanese cinema through the work of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi.
The film must also have been very costly, and one assumes that rather than the Salesians it was the Japanese Catholics who undertook the bulk of the financial burden, proud of the recognition afforded by the Vatican. The narrative and documentary elements do not clash, and the film narrates the tale of an endeavour momentarily defeated with all the mastery of late silent cinema. (However, the film does not delve into the political reasons behind the persecution – the well-founded fear that the missionaries could be the vanguard of a Portuguese or Catholic colonialism). The film is divided into four chapters corresponding to the historical moments of the mission, and culminates in the scene of their martyrdom as the twenty-six Christians are crucified on the beach and run through with long lances.
Throughout the film there is a sense of decency side-lined by Catholic propaganda during the reign of Pius XII. There is a substantial, formal respect for another culture; or rather, it is from that other culture that the film derives; it is the Christian part of that culture that speaks to us, from within Japan, of its culture and its history.
Goffredo Fofi, “Il Sole 24 Ore”, 5 February 2017
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Tomiyasu Ikeda. F.: Hiroshi Sakai. Int.: Kaichi Yamamoto, Yutaka Mimasu, Jôji Oka, Kiyoshi Sawada, Yônosuke Toba, Chiezô Kataoka, Yayoi Kawakami. Prod.: Seiju Hirayama per Nikkatsu Uzumasa. DCP. D.: 65’. Bn.
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