Makoto Fujimura is concerned with the beauty that can be found in hiddenness and contemplation. He’s an artist close to the Martin Scorsese movie “Silence,” about Jesuit missionaries in Japan, and who’s written a book called Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering.
In it, he writes: “Willingness to spend time truly seeing can change how we view the world, moving us away from our fast-food culture of superficially scanning what we see and become surfeited with images that do not delve below the surface.”
Fujimura says that in the novel Silence, Shusaku Endo “intuited the schism in modern cultures that flows out of trauma, and saw seventeen-century Japanese history as a basis of his inquiry into how doubt, shame, betrayals and trauma affect human experiences and faith.”
“I see my role as an artist,” Fujimura writes, “as recovering and reintroducing to our age the mystery of the Japanese contemplative aesthetic.” We talk about what he means.
Lopez: What is so beautiful about Silence, the novel, and “Silence”, the movie?
Fujimura: What is beautiful about Endo is the power of his writing, and how that power comes across even if it is translated into other languages. What is beautiful about Scorsese’s movie is that he translates Endo’s writing further into the most exquisite visual expression.
Do we understand “beautiful” in the West anymore?
At the deepest level, all cultures share in our appreciation of the beautiful.
What’s most important for Americans to understand about the Japanese experience of Christianity and persecution? And what’s universal about its lessons?
That Japan is a very different soil from ours, a “muddy swamp” that led to 250 years of intense persecution of Christians, and there are still wounds from that time. By understanding Japanese cultural forms, perhaps we may discover what God as hidden in Japanese culture reveals what outsiders need to know about ourselves and the Gospel itself.
What is “a traumatized fumi-e culture” and how is it relevant to Americans and other Westerners today?
The harsh bifurcation of ideological and cultural assumptions of scarcity will lead to culture wars. We are still raw from our recent presidential elections in which we had to step on many “Fumi-es,” stepping on our ideals and cherished principles to vote for a candidate.
This polarity is caused by the lack of generative thinking, of the lack of what I call “Culture Care” approach toward abundance. Endo’s writing speaks directly into our fragmented culture, for “such a time as this.”
What does it mean to create “a space for all who have walked through trauma and the apparent silence of God to explore universal truths of, healing, hope and survival in any of the difficulties of life?” And how does Silence – the book and movie – do that?
The end of the book, and the movie, is our beginning. We need to create communal units to answer this question. There is no one right path.
How did “The image of fumi-e…worn smooth with so many feet stepping over it…become the most powerful portrait of Christ?”
This refers to a comment by Professor Atsushi Suwa when he interviewed me on Silence and beauty at Hiroshima City University. The greatest Japanese portrait artist of our time and someone outside the church, can see that worn smooth Fumi-e is the greatest portrait of Christ. It was only through Japanese visual culture that such a portrayal is possible.
You write that “In Japan, Silence is beauty and beauty is silent.” How can, say, an Irish Catholic, a black southerner, or a Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles relate to that, relate to Silence?
Every culture has some hidden reality that unlocks God’s Truth. These pieces are like parts of our bodies, comprising to make a greater whole. What Endo wrote is universally resonant, but each culture has a way to unlock that truth.
ISIS comes up more than once in your book. How does Silence help us understand it, help us combat it?
We have to realize that what is called “soft diplomacy” is far more effective than actual wars. I write in my book Refractions: “we swim in the ecosystem of imagined actions.” Terror is the use of imagination to take away lives: we need to train our imaginations toward love through fear.
What does Silence have to say to the Christians who do not step on the image of Christ, who refuse to convert? That they are fools?
We need to venerate them: and then realize we cannot, perhaps, be like them. Scorsese handles this equation very well in the film.
How can Silence help us understand religious freedom as precious? And how can art help us better convey this?
Art and religion are deeply connected in this expression of human freedom. The best of the arts champion fullness of humanity in God, whether done by a Christian or an atheist.
Why did you found the International Arts Movement? What difference does it make?
Since we are not trying to change the world, but simply being faithful, I am fine with not making any difference.
What were your interactions with Martin Scorcese like? What did you learn about his appreciation of religious faith and art?
From the first time we conversed, I realized he was just like any of the “Tribeca dads,” trying to live out his calling, to honor his craft, and trying to communicate his love to his children. He has been disarmingly honest in his other interviews of his struggles, and his transparency moved me.
Isn’t the absence of silence our problem today? That there is too much noise to ever hear God even if he’s speaking?
What do you hope Silence speaks to the seeker? The “none” who describes himself as “spiritual but not religious?”
Endo became a best-selling author not by convincing Christians to read his writings, but because so many outsiders of faith resonated with their “personal Fumi-e” they have stepped on. I think Marty’s effort moves this universality further by creating a movie that is an homage to Endo, Japanese martyrs, to those loved ones.
Ultimately the “medium is the message,” and this film attains a realm of art rarely achieved in any medium. His film is the incarnation of his growing faith, created in and through love as a gift for us to cherish.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.