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"What is the opposite of villain?": Issei Ogata on his role in Martin Scorsese's Silence

The venerable Japanese actor talks about his character and whom he identifies with most.

American Cinematheque Tribute To Martin Scorsese And Irwin Winkler
Ogata speaks at an American Cinematheque Tribute to Martin Scorsese in Hollywood in December 2016.
Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

Martin Scorsese’s historical religious epic Silence has been drawing accolades from critics and audiences since it entered limited release in late December. Based on a novel by Shūsaku Endō and set in the 17th century, the movie stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe, who travel to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), who’s rumored to have repudiated his faith. There, they encounter Japanese Christians forced to keep their faith secret for fear of violent persecution by the government. That threat that catches up with Rodrigues and Garrpe when they are betrayed by Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka).

The main figure rooting out the Christians and ordering their punishment is the Inquisitor Inoue Masashige, played by prominent Japanese actor Issei Ogata. Ogata has had a long career as a character actor on the stage and screen, and in Silence he portrays a character who could have been a caricatured villain with warmth, complexity, and even humor.

Vox spoke with Ogata in December, just after an early screening of Silence in New York City. Through a translator, Ogata spoke about his feelings regarding his character, the character he most identified with personally, and what watching the film has meant to him.

The following interview was conducted through a translator, and has been edited for clarity and length.

Alissa Wilkinson

Your character in Silence, Inoue, is not a good guy — but he’s not really a conventional villain, either. What attracted you to playing this character?

Issei Ogata

The fact that he's a villain inspired me to give [the character] depths, not something superficial. I embarked on this experiment, so to speak, in what is the opposite of villain.

Ogata plays Inquisitor Inoue Masashiga in Silence
Ogata plays Inquisitor Inoue Masashige in Silence.

Alissa Wilkinson

You saw the character as not just a villain but also someone who might have good intentions?

Issei Ogata

Yeah, it's a job. It's a job for him. He has a hard job. As a person, Inoue understands the burden of his responsibility. If he had a choice, he would rather not have this job. But unfortunately, priests are coming, and they keep coming.

Alissa Wilkinson

Would you say his job is almost like a performance? Is it a way to make money? Or is it a way of having power?

Issei Ogata

At that specific time period in Japan, what was most valuable was the loyalty to the government, so that was probably where Inoue was. That degree of loyalty and dedication is probably inconceivable in our modern days. Pride and extreme loyalty to the government was quite strong.

Alissa Wilkinson

Is your character changed during the film by his encounter with the priests, or does he stay of the same frame of mind?

Issei Ogata

I wanted to play him as if he transformed, as if he changed. Every character in this film changes. A lot of people die, a lot of people deny their faith, a lot of people are still faithful but let people think they deny their faith. I think a lot of people go through transformation in the story.

Inoue has obviously persecuted a lot of Japanese Christians as well as foreign priests, but it was most likely his first time to encounter Rodrigues and have this personal experience of truly stripping somebody of his last bit of dignity.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you feel as if Inoue’s attitude toward the government changes through that experience?

Issei Ogata

That will never change. Because of Rodrigues, it's going to be even harder for him to continue this persecution, but [loyalty to the government] is something that he would always have within himself and will never let go.

Alissa Wilkinson

In one scene, Inoue and Rodrigues are sitting across from each other, talking about the missionaries’ failure to understand Japanese culture and the government’s opposition to the Christians. Watching that scene, it seems as if these two men are shades of each other — opposite sides of the same coin. Did you think of them in that way at all?

Issei Ogata

When I'm playing, I don't think about these things. I don't think about the contrast and the shades and all those things. But it's very nice to hear the result of it, because when I’m playing, I’m very focused on the performance, the face. When you see the film and see these kinds of contrast, that's very encouraging to hear.

'Silence' New York Screening And Q&A
Ogata at a screening and Q&A of Silence in New York City on December 8, 2016.
Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

What did you think of Endō’s novel when you read it?

Issei Ogata

I felt lot of sympathy toward Kichijiro. I could really relate. I saw myself in Kichijiro. I would do that. When I read the screenplay, I just felt so bad for Kichijiro, because at least Rodrigues sort of had this mission. You can believe that he's saved at the end. For pretty much everybody in the novel, there is some kind of salvation, so to speak. But Kichijiro, he just has no knowledge, no hope, no salvation. I felt a lot of sympathy for him.

Alissa Wilkinson

Watching the movie now, what is your takeaway from the film?

Issei Ogata

I saw it in Los Angeles about a week ago for the first time. I knew that I was overwhelmed with emotions, but I couldn't come up with words. I couldn't articulate it, so I was very frustrated.

Yesterday, I started to think that this is the type of film that would really stay with me for the rest of my life — in the hard times, lonely times, challenging times. It's sort of the film that would continue to speak to me for the rest of my life. In this sense, I will never be lonely. Maybe Kichijiro should watch this film.

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