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Interview: Issey Ogata on How Martin Scorsese’s Silence Made Him Question His Own Beliefs

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is an epic in the classic sense of the word. Visually breathtaking and intensely haunting, it’s a memorable, visceral journey that took over thirty years for Scorsese to bring to the screen.

Andrew Garfield plays Sebastião Rodrigues, one of two Jesuit priests sent on a mission to 17th-century Japan to searching for their missing teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Issey Ogata plays the formidable Inoue Masashige, known as the Inquisitor. His role is integral to the story and looms large in landscape as impenetrable as it is vast. I caught up with Ogata and spoke with him, ably assisted by a translator, to discuss how Silence opened his own eyes to a fresh way of regarding to his own beliefs, and how he spent six years waiting for the role until Silence finally went into production.

Awards Daily: How did the role come about for you?

Issey Ogata: Back in 2009, I was asked to audition for the role of Inoue and did a video audition. I met with the casting directors, and when Martin came to Japan I was cast for the role. As you know, the film was postponed. During those six years, I held on to that one scene that I read in the audition and had built up the character while I waited for the film to materialized.

AD: I read that Scorsese said that you audition was striking.

IO: [laughs] I didn’t hear that.

AD: What did he say to you about the role of the Inquisitor?

IO: He didn’t say much. It was more a case of Scorsese being very supportive of ideas that I had. There were times he would ask me to hold something for a bit longer, but otherwise, he was really complimentary.

AD: You have a comedic background, playing over 600 vignettes in your comedy career. How did that help you with Silence?

IO: It helped 100% having that background. In playing Inoue I used the same process. I went from external to internal. By that I mean, what kind of facial expressions does he make? How he holds his body, and his tone. I also looked at his vocabulary and that’s how I shape my characters. As I play around and explore options, I look at what I feel intrigues me and I pursue those qualities. The fact that Inoue’s character comes to life pays tribute to my theater background and that’s something that I’m happy about.

AD: Were you an admirer of Endo before you came on?

IO: I wasn’t a fan so to speak. I had tried reading the book when I was younger but I couldn’t complete it. Once I was offered the role, I read the book and was able to appreciate its power that goes way beyond the mind. Now, I can appreciate it, all these years later.

AD: What can you tell us about working with your dialogue coach Tim Monich and how you prepared your scenes in working with him?

IO: I wouldn’t be where I am without Tim Monich. He’s a true veteran and professional. He would help keep me focused on my English, isolating the character work and focusing on how words were pronounced. I learned so many things from him. I was learning lines that Tim gave me and that would help me communicate with Andrew Garfield, otherwise, he’d have no clue what I was saying. [laughs].
In a way, it was a surreal experience speaking in English, but he was so helpful to my work.

AD: A lot of the characters go through a transformation. How would you say your character transformed?

IO: The character is a high-ranking government official and normally he’d be in the office, but because of what was going on in Nagasaki with the Christian revolt he was sent to the field. He was physically persecuting the Christians, forcing them to apostatize, if not, he was torturing them. Then he meets Rodrigues. Until then, Christians were just numbers to him, but Rodrigues transforms him. They have this interaction that transforms Inoue as a person, as a human being.

By the end, Inoue takes his name away and his identity, which is an extremely drastic thing to do. I felt that Inoue recognized that act. By the end, he felt he can’t do anything about it because it’s beyond himself, it’s destiny, it’s what the government requires of him and he felt powerless. I wonder whether Inoue would check in from time to time on Rodrigues. It’s something I could see happening.

AD: Scorsese shot the film in sequence, how did that help you as an actor?

IO: That was really great and something I’m grateful for that. There’s this distance at the start between Inoue and Rodrigues, and they become closer by the end of the film. To shoot it in order was helpful so I could understand the growth of that relationship even more.

AD: Was there any scene that was particularly difficult to film?

IO: When Liam’s character is hung upside down. I was thinking if I mess up, he’s going to be stuck there. [laughs]

AD: Silence deals with faith head-on. How did you react to the film when you saw the finished product?

IO: When I first saw the film, I was speechless. It was so powerful, and I realized that there was this thing where you can be moved beyond words. I needed the time to digest it all. It’s a film that will stay with me for life, and it raised a lot of questions and inspired me to think about my own life, beliefs and my own identity. It created an interest for me to explore spirituality, belief in God, a higher power and I’m interested in Japanese history, and what it means to be Japanese. The film is so rich and inspires so many things in me, and that’s how I feel.