Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is a story meant to plumb the depths of the mysterium iniquitatis by focusing on the character of Judas Iscariot and his relationship with Christ. Martin Scorsese underlines the theme of Judas’ betrayal in his foreword to a new edition the novel put out in advance of Scorsese’s film adaptation, in select theaters now. Endo has his protagonist, the Jesuit priest and missionary Sebastião Rodrigues, meditating on Judas for much of the book, mulling over in particular the perplexing line of Christ in John’s Gospel, after Satan had entered into Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (Jn 13:27). Rodrigues wonders in the novel what it could mean for Christ to tell Judas to betray him. His wonderings foreshadow the climactic moment in Rodrigues’ own life, when he must choose whether or not to place his foot on an image of Christ—thereby disavowing his Lord publically—in order to save the lives of Japanese Christians being tortured by the authorities in order to extort the priest’s apostasy.
Much of the commentary on the new film has focused on Rodrigues’s fate—whether the novel and film set up Rodrigues’ apostasy as praiseworthy or not; whether Endo and Scorsese neglect the heroism of the Japanese and missionary martyrs due to a morbid, spiritually-suspect fascination with the apostates. Those are legitimate questions, but they are not the best entries into understanding either Endo’s novel or Scorsese’s adaptation.
Tellingly, very few reviews and commentaries have discussed the character of Kichijiro, the serial apostate and serial penitent, at much length. Kichijiro is not the central character; that is undoubtedly Rodrigues. But Kichijiro is central to understanding what Endo and Scorsese are up to. For the sake of accessibility, I will mostly limit myself to commenting on the film adaptation in the following (and there are spoilers ahead).
When we meet Kichijiro, played exceptionally well by Yosuke Kubosuka, he is drunk, dirty, miserable, and exiled from his native Japan. When asked if he is a Christian, he denies it immediately and vehemently, while another character confirms his Christianity. Despite an unpromising beginning, Kichijiro agrees to be a guide for Rodrigues and his companion, Father Garrupe (Garrpe in the novel), as they set out to do undercover missionary work in Japan. Once the Jesuits make contact with local Japanese Christians, Kichijiro’s backstory comes out. His whole family was rounded up when they were found to be Christians and confronted with the choice to trample on a fumie—an image of Christ—or be burned at the stake. Kichijiro trampled; the rest of his family refused. He watched them die. One of the most touching, cathartic moments early in the movie is when Kichijiro asks Father Rodrigues to hear his confession, tearfully desiring to be reconciled with the God he had denied.
But it soon turns out that Kichijiro’s conversion does not give him the courage he needs to face persecution when it comes to him next. Kichijiro denies God publically three more times throughout the film. This is in sharp contrast both with Rodrigues, who stays steadfast almost to the end, and with several of Kichijiro’s fellow Japanese Christians, most notably the martyr Mokichi, who dies under a form of water torture singing the Tantum Ergo. Kichijiro even sells out Father Rodrigues, leading the Japanese authorities to him, and receives 10 times Judas’ price for the deed, 300 pieces of silver. At that point, Rodrigues—not without reason—begins to think of him as Judas Iscariot. The troubling implication of Rodrigues’ attitude is that he then begins to place himself in the place of Christ with a certainty that becomes spiritually deadly for him.
Kichijiro is a ridiculous, but also a tragic, figure. Scorsese’s direction and Kubosuka’s acting draw that out well. But Kichijiro’s constant betrayals, both of his God and of his neighbor, do not tell the whole story of his character. After each betrayal, he seeks out the sacrament of reconciliation with genuine penitence, oftentimes weeping and prostrating himself. He lashes out, saying, “It’s so unfair!” He claims he could have been a good Christian, if he had not been born under a persecution. He asks Rodrigues during his confession, when both are being held in a Japanese prison, “Where is the place for the weak man?” meaning himself. At this point, Rodrigues is so thoroughly disgusted by Kichijiro’s inconstancy that he can barely bring himself to give the words of absolution.
Notably, Rodrigues does not answer Kichijiro’s question. He regards Kichijiro as not even worthy of being called evil, compared with the cunning and ruthless evil of his Japanese tormentors. The place for the weak man, Scorsese’s direction strongly implies, is right there in the makeshift confessional. But Rodrigues is no longer capable of seeing it.
As Catholic saints and spiritual masters have always pointed out, the Christian life is at its base the constant battle between humility and pride. Kichijiro’s weakness is the perfect foil to Rodrigues’ fortitude; but Kichijiro’s weakness is also his avenue toward humility. Whereas Rodrigues, with his narcissistic and facile identification of himself and his own circumstances with Christ, it ultimately undone by his pride. When Rodrigues falls, we do not see him seek out the sacrament of reconciliation, as Kichijiro does time and time again.
Kichijiro appears as a kind of Christian-disciple Everyman. He does not have the fortitude to die a martyr under persecution, although he acknowledges that the martyrs have taken the better path. He is traumatized by his failure, but also continually seeks forgiveness. At the end of the novel, Rodrigues has emerged not as Christ to Kichijiro’s Judas, but as Judas himself.
In Christian tradition, the figure of Judas—who betrays Christ, despairs, and commits suicide—is always contrasted with the figure of Peter, who likewise betrays Christ, but then repents and is accepted back into friendship with Christ. Likewise, except for St. John, all of Jesus’ apostles abandon him after his capture in Gethsemane. Kichijiro (who is, we are told, a fisherman by trade) turns out to be less like Judas than like the other apostles, who likewise betray Jesus but who then repent.
Endo’s intention is not to valorize apostasy, but to shed light on the crucial reality that, at some point, every Christian is put in the position of Peter, who was asked, “Are you not also one of his disciples?” In many and varied ways through our sins, we answer with Peter, “I do not know him.” As Amy Welborn points out in her Catholic World Report article on Silence, the image of the trampled-upon fumie functions universally: everybody tramples on their loyalties due to external pressure at some point and in some way. Christians, none of whom are without sin, all in some way or another betray Christ, as St. Paul reminds us.
For any Christians in a time of persecution or shortly thereafter, there is a deadly temptation toward the heresy of Donatism, which opposed the re-admittance of penitent apostates back to ecclesial communion. The case of Kichijiro implicitly summons the question of St. Peter to Christ: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Christ’s answer is as much to say: as many times as your brother sins—even apostatizes—you must forgive him.
In Endo’s book and Scorsese’s film, Rodrigues is at first suspicious of the Japanese Christian peasants who put so much stock in “tangible signs” of faith such as medals and rosary beads, thinking that perhaps their faith is not “spiritual” enough. But in the absence of priests, those tangible signs were what provided the lifeline to the faith for Japanese Christians. In a beautiful touch, it is Kichijiro who is caught at the end of the novel and movie with a religious medallion, implying that Providence will work even through these compromised figures to pass on the Catholic faith, despite the ruthless persecution and the weakness of Providence’s instruments.
One final note is necessary because of the way many Catholics have approached the final, apostatized figure of Rodrigues. It is tempting to scorn Rodrigues utterly. In comparison with the martyrs, he deserves it. But it is very easy for the contemporary Christian reader and viewer to treat Rodrigues in the same way that Rodrigues treated Kichijiro. We are not shown whether Rodrigues was penitent like Kichijiro or not at the end of his life—but the temptation toward contempt for Rodrigues is a moment for self-examination Endo and Scorsese present us with, and a moment that allows us to learn Rodrigues’ lesson without undergoing Rodrigues’ trials.