Since his early films, such as “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1989) and “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” (1992), pioneered the cyberpunk genre with a crazed energy and invention, Shinya Tsukamoto has had a reputation as Japanese cinema’s outlaw. While doing the occasional work for hire, he has stayed outside the industry mainstream, following his own creative impulses rather than box-office trends.
As an actor in both his own films and those of others, he typically plays characters in extreme situations, from the insurance salesman turned blood-soaked boxer in “Tokyo Fist” (1995) to the World War II soldier dying of illness and starvation in “Fires on the Plain” (2014).
In person, however, Tsukamoto is nothing like some of his more frenzied heroes: He’s always the soul of politeness, if with a spirit of steel behind the gentle smile.
His casting as Mokichi in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” a historical drama about two young Portuguese missionaries who come to Japan after Christianity has been outlawed by the Tokugawa Shogunate and its followers persecuted, was more than a professional favor. Scorsese was reportedly surprised that Tsukamoto, a director whose work he admires, showed up at an audition just like any other jobbing actor.
At a recent interview at the offices of distributor Kadokawa, Tsukamoto tells me that he has been a big Scorsese fan since first seeing “Taxi Driver” as a teenager.
“I saw it again and again, and each time I discovered something,” he says. “I wanted to be on the set (of “Silence”), no matter how small the role. I felt that just meeting Scorsese in the audition would be enough.”
The audition turned out to be “truly wonderful,” he recalls. “Scorsese took the part of (Andrew Garfield, who plays the priest Rodrigues) and I took the part of Mokichi. Scorsese’s acting is really great. When he appeared in ‘Taxi Driver’ he gave a natural performance. And reacting to his performance (at the audition), I also played it naturally.”
As Mokichi, the leader of a kakure kirishitan (hidden Christian) community, who faces death rather than reject his faith, Tsukamoto anchors crucial scenes in “Silence” with a simple purity and steadfastness that are by turns inspiring and agonizing to watch. Subjected to terrors and torture that could have come from the darker reaches of his own imagination, Tsukamoto as Mokichi is sublime.
“The original novel by Shusaku Endo is really interesting and the film is very faithful to the novel,” he says. “But the film expands (it) to something bigger and more dynamic. That’s its appeal, I feel.”
His own commitment — he was filming from January to March of 2015 — was far longer than for the average Japanese film. “I was there for nearly half of the entire shoot, which ended in May,” he says. The role was also strenuous physically, particularly the scene, shown in the trailer, of Mokichi tied to a cross in a pounding surf.
“Most of that was shot in a big pool, with the rocks in the distance made with CG,” Tsukamoto says. “When the waves covered me, though, the water got in my nose and I started gagging. I couldn’t say all my lines by the time the next wave came, and then the same thing happened again — the wave hit me and I couldn’t get all my lines out. I was really desperate — it was scary.”
Physical struggles aside, Tsukamoto did notice parallels between his and Scorsese’s approach to filmmaking.
“My films are only on a small scale, while his are bigger by a factor of not just 10 or 100 or 1,000, but infinity,” he explains. “What made me happy, though, was that the way Scorsese shot and structured the film was not so different from a Japanese set. I was glad that our way of making films was the same, even though the scale was different.”
In preparing for the role of Mokichi, Tsukamoto drew on his own film “Fires on the Plain,” in which he played the soldier hero threatened by comrades who have turned to cannibalism.
“The setting is a war where everyone’s freedom is violently repressed,” he says. “Something similar happens in ‘Silence.’ War and religion may seem to be different, but they’re pretty similar. If someone uses violence to tell me I can’t believe in some religion, that’s like war. I played Mokichi with the wish (in mind) that my children’s generation wouldn’t have the same kind of thing happen to them.”
In this way, despite not being a religious man, Tsukamoto feels an affinity with Mokichi, saying, “I couldn’t live purely, always believing one faith the way Mokichi does, but I have something I believe, in place of a religion. I’m opposed to any kind of oppressive power — that’s something I feel strongly about.”
Working with Scorsese involved little instruction. “We (only) met and briefly read through the lines, but that time together was quite important. We really put a lot of effort into that reading,” he says, adding that one fruit of that effortwas a scene featuring the Latin hymn “Tanto Ergo.”
“At first we weren’t going to have a song, but I thought it was definitely necessary, so I did some research and made a presentation about why it was needed,” he says of the hymn that was featured in the cross scene. “I thought (the song) went pretty well,” he adds modestly.
And did he learn anything as a filmmaker from the experience of working with Scorsese?
“The way he, as a director, truly respected the actors was a big lesson for me,” he says. “I’ve always tried to treat actors well, but from now on I’ll treat them even better.”