Outsiders often think of Japan as a homogeneous nation and culture, but the Japanese themselves are often quite conscious of the problems minorities face in their country. Throughout his career, the director Nagisa Oshima has shown a special concern for the mistreatment of minorities, particularly Koreans. In Amakusa Tokisada Shiro, Oshima took up the topic of the persecution of Christians under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The best known Japanese work on this subject outside Japan is probably the Catholic author Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, an adaptation of which has long been a dream project for Martin Scorsese. While Endo generously focuses on the persecution of European missionaries, Oshima looks at the suffering of Japanese Christians and their conflicted response to persecution. He also strives for a critical synthesis of Japanese and European models of artistic representation while questioning in an almost postmodern way exactly what in people's hearts can be represented pictorially at all.
Oshima's protagonist is a historical figure, Shiro Amakusa, but seems to have taken liberties with history by making a character who supposedly died while still in his teens a former samurai (Hashizo Okawa) who's regarded as a leader of his peasant community as well as a charismatic prophet. His people are being pushed to the breaking point by a rapacious nobility that blames inadequate tax revenue on Shiro's religion. The local samurai, with one noble exception, compete to devise ways to torture Christians and terrorize them into recanting their faith. One such turncoat, Emosaku (Rentaro Mikuni) has become a court painter, specializing in European-style oil painting which he claims represents a subject's actual personality better than traditional Japanese art. He balks, however, when commanded to paint Christians performing the "straw dance," -- they are wrapped in husks of straw, set on fire and set running -- and is suspected of remaining a Christian. Desperate to save himself, he rats out Christians inside the local lord's household. This undermines Shiro's long-term plan to stage an uprising within the castle to overthrow the oppressive lord, though the plan often seems like little more than a promise of redemption to his angry co-religionists.
Shiro is a conflicted hero with an uncertain understanding of his own religion, despite his mother's constant tutelage. He sends mixed messages to his people, assuring them that their persecution is not the will of God but that an enraged peasant going on a foolhardy mission of revenge was God's will. As the pressure builds for an uprising, he rationalizes it by saying that his people will fight as oppressed peasants, not as Christians in violation of the turn-the-other-cheek rule. Once the fighting is underway, it threatens to get out of his control when a charismatic ronin offers his assistance and more ronin join him. Still straddling the fence, Shiro defers to the ronin on military matters until several setbacks -- including the hostility of European military advisers to the shogun and an alleged excommunication from the Catholic Church -- forces a decisive three-way choice on the Christians. Shall they continue to fight the samurai head-on, as the ronin wants, disperse into smaller inconspicuous groups, as some others want, or fortify themselves in one place to resist a samurai assault, as Shiro wants. When Shiro is finally driven to assert himself violently in a showdown with the ronin, who has called him out as a coward, the feeling is unmistakable that there's nothing left for him to do but die -- and take thousands with him....
Oshima maintains a critical but not negative attitude toward Christianity, but constantly reminds us of the samurai cruelty that drove so many to become Christians as well as revolt against the social order. While many of the "history of cruelty" movies made in Europe focus on the atrocities perpetrated by Christians on others -- witches, heretics, etc. -- in Oshima's film the shoe is on the other foot. The effect is largely the same, however, since for the Japanese filmmaker Christians are the other made objects of empathy. His film really transcends my theoretical genre, rising from a litany of torture to the level of epic tragedy, filmed in appropriate long-take tableaux with theatrical intensity and chiaroscuro cinematography. Scenes often develop in slow-burn fashion, but the payoff, especially in the final confrontation between Shiro and the ronin, is tremendous.
Transcending his historical subject, Oshima also invites his audience to question whether his eloquently exquisite or brutal images can truly capture the spirit of the time or the personality of the players. This proposition is put forth explicitly in Emosaku's explication of the relative virtues of Japanese and European art. He tells his patron that Japanese painting is best for landscapes and "beautiful figures," while the European style is best for portraiture that evokes a subject's true self. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Oshima himself is testing these premises, switching frequently from huge close-ups designed to catch profound emotion to vast landscape long shots that reduce armies to ants against the mountains.
Cinema itself is a third thing entirely, and in one sequence of visually "rhyming" shots Oshima implicitly asks whether cinema can catch emotional truth any better than painting.
Between the subject and its representation stands the subjectivity of the artist, and that's what Emosaku really seems to stand for. Does his portrait show the truth of the lord -- the lord himself asks, "Are you trying to say I look repulsive?" -- or only Emosaku's opinion of the man. The question rises again when, after repeatedly refusing to paint a straw dance, Emosaku appears to have a real religious experience during the crucifixion of Shiro's mother and sister, along with Shiro's one samurai ally and his wife on either side of a single cross.
Oshima has illustrated Shiro's reaction, and that of the other Christians, by bathing them in floodlights and leading the camera through a lengthy tracking shot of dozens of despairing or prayerful close-ups.
The painter responds to the scene with a picture of Christ crucified amid a field of crosses as doves rise heavenward and the Virgin watches in the sky. Depending on the witness, his may have been as "true" a report of the event as Oshima's cinematography -- Shintaro Kawasaki did the brilliant actual work. In the same way, perhaps, Christianity is one thing to Shiro, another to his mother, and something else yet to someone else. All of this is a possibly pretentious way of saying that there's a lot going on in Amakusa Tokisada Shiro to make it interesting if not compelling for people without any special sympathy for Christianity. It seems to be a relatively unknown item for Americans in Oshima's filmography -- ignored even by the otherwise Oshima-rich Criterion Collection -- but its neglect is unjustified. The Christian Revolt is a dark epic that deserves wider renown.
No English subtitles on this trailer -- uploaded to YouTube by WorldCinemateque -- but it'll give you some idea of the moving images and the terrific score by Riichiro Manabe.