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Film about Japanese saints turns 80

Silent classic tells tale of martyrs in ancient Japan

A still from the movie. Hideyoshi Toyotomi, ruler at the time, offers a banquet for Franciscan missionary Pedro Bautista A still from the movie. Hideyoshi Toyotomi, ruler at the time, offers a banquet for Franciscan missionary Pedro Bautista
  • ucanews.com special correspondent, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • October 17, 2011
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A Japanese movie entitled “26 Martyrs of Japan: Ware Yo ni Kateri”, first shown on October 1, 1931, is being screened again throughout Japan in honor of its 80th birthday this month.

The film, which featured famous actors of the day, was produced as a silent movie by Nikkatsu Corporation at a studio in Kyoto. Nikkatsu was a normal movie company and had no prior relationship with the Church or any other religious organization.

Funding for the film came in large part from a personal investment by Masaju Hirayama, a Catholic. Starting in 1932, Hirayama brought the film to Europe and America, pulling out all the stops to arrange showings internationally. “Talkie” versions in English, French, and Dutch were developed for the occasion.

Masaju Hirayama was the grandfather of Takaaki Hirayama, who became bishop of Oita and is now, at the age of 87, in retirement as Bishop Emeritus.

Masaju’s reason for creating the film was to dispel the Japanese prejudice towards Christianity that had existed since the 17th century. It is said that another reason was to spread a positive image about Japan abroad; in September 1931, Japan had staged the Manchurian (Mukden) Incident (where the Japanese created a pretext to invade and occupy Manchuria) and was the target of international criticism.

The movie opens in the days when the Spaniard Pedro Bautista, a Franciscan missionary, landed in Japan as an envoy of the governor-general of the Philippines. A study has shown that the original film included a scene about the canonization. However, the English version includes no scene about the ceremony.

The script was written by Father Hermann Heuvers, SJ, a professor at Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo, based on an original work by Fr Aime Villion, MEP. Guidance on the ceremonies depicted was provided by Msgr Egide Roy, OFM, apostolic administrator of Kagoshima.

The 26 Japanese saints included six Franciscans and three Jesuits. The youngest martyr was a 12 year-old boy.

This year, to evangelize the film for modern audiences, 83 year-old Brother Tomei Ozaki (OFM Conv) is making a tour with the film, acting as a narrator at screenings and lending out copies on DVD.
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