Silence is Martin Scorsese's passion project. Based on a novel by one of Japan’s most respected writers, Shusaku Endo, it is a film the Goodfellas auteur has been wanting to make for years. The plot centres on two idealistic young Portuguese priests who set sail to Japan in 1640 on a mission to find their mentor, Father Ferreira – who is rumoured to have betrayed his faith under torture.
The film stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson and Shinya Tsukamoto, the actor and director best known as the man behind cult flicks Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tokyo Fist and Fires on the Plain. We spoke with Tsukamoto, who in Silence plays the devout Catholic Mokichi, to get an insider’s view on this historical epic.
How did your appearance in 'Silence' come about?
I played the role of an English teacher in an NHK television series (Full Swing), which probably helped me get the offer to audition. When I heard the details, I was surprised to learn that it was a movie directed by Mr Scorsese, the director I respect most of all.
I got the role soon after the audition, but it didn’t seem like production would start right away... The acting session with Mr Scorsese during the audition was absolutely wonderful, and I couldn’t wait to experience it again.
How did you approach your portrayal of Mokichi?
I don’t follow any particular religion, so I agonised over how to go about it. As a result, I played the role with two strong motivations. First, I decided that I would do anything for Mr Scorsese and created a religion around that. And secondly, at my age I start to worry about the children of the future.
That was why I made Fires on the Plain [which follows the desperate struggle of a Japanese private in the waning days of World War II], but I put my fervent prayers that those children will be okay into my performance in Silence.
What was working with Scorsese like? Were there similarities in the way you make your films?
To be honest, the set itself wasn’t all that different from working in Japan. The fundamentals of making a movie were the same. So finding similarities made me happy, like ‘Hey, that’s the same!’ Rather than similarities to my movies, I was encouraged by the fact that the fundamental parts of making a movie were the same.
I heard that some scenes were shot up to 100 times before getting wrapped...
Mr Scorsese films the same scene over and over – that’s a luxury we don’t have in Japanese movies. He is very meticulous about the details in editing, so he gets a variety of shots so there’s no way he’ll be missing anything when he goes to edit. And that’s not just for simple scenes, either – he’ll shoot large-scale scenes 100 times, too.
Are you currently producing or planning any films of your own?
Things are finally settling down with the last few things I needed to do for Fires on the Plain, so when that’s taken care of I can move on to the next thing. At the moment, I think I still need to focus on [promoting] Fires on the Plain and Silence.
Both of those films took a long time to make, right?
The projects were totally different in terms of scale, but both Mr Scorsese and I took a long time to make them, and they were both based on novels by great Japanese authors [Fires on the Plain was written by Shohei Ooka]. Both have heavy, serious stories as well, so both films are very important to me.
What message does Silence have for us in the present?
Both Shusaku Endo and Mr Scorsese pose questions about religion and why there needs to be conflict between different peoples. Personally, I’m struck by the absurdity of why, at any given point in history, someone is always using violence to suppress what others believe. Silence asks a powerful question about that absurdity. It’s a story about religion, but aspects of our modern culture can also be seen within it.
Silence opens in cinemas across Japan on January 21.