Book Review: The Final Martyrs (2008)

Despite being released in 2008, the eleven short stories comprised in this edition aren’t new short stories. The Japanese author Shusaku Endo conceived of the stories and published them between 1959 and 1985.

Endo is most famous now for his 1966 masterpiece Silence. The book was launched into western discussion and prominence in 2016 following Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed adaptation of the book. He’d been gifted a copy of the book by Akira Kurosawa after flying to Japan to shoot a cameo in his film Dreams. The book famously inspired Scorsese who was in a religious slump after shooting The Last Temptation of Christ years earlier. It’s wonderful then that his adaptation helped introduce a new generation of readers to Endo.

Amusingly, the edition I purchased at a local Japanese grocery story is so old that it credits Martin Scorsese’s “upcoming” film staring “Daniel Day-Lewis.” Lewis dropped out of negotiates to star in the film in 2011.

I bring up Silence because you can definitely tell these short stories are operating on the thematic edges of the territory Endo explored in that book. Endo’s voice as a writer has long been defined by his alienation and contradictions imposed by the intersection of his Catholicism and Japanese ethnicity.

Catholicism is not a widely practiced religion in Japan. It’s clear reading in his books that the status of being a Japanese Catholic placed a great burden on his soul that isolated him at some level from his countrymen. He felt the urge to seek the lord and understand his word but he also sensed how Christianity’s introduction to Japan created problems.

He struggled with racism from European preachers and antipathy from his countrymen. You see examples of this in several of Endo’s short stories where Japanese civilians snidely dismiss Christians as foolish “Amen Priests”. Endo contrasts this dismissal in his short story Shadow with an extended letter he’s shown writing to his estranged childhood priest. He can’t quite bring himself to send him the letter because he can’t put into words just how his complicated with him has created a burden on his adult life.

His first short story, the titular Final Martyrs, is almost a clear prototype for the types of character a he would go on to expand upon in Silence. The character of Kichijirō is almost identical to the character of Kisuke in the short story. While the settings for both stories are radically different, both characters are young Christian men who find themselves alive in a time of great persecution.

Both character share the same motivating thought: If only they had been born in a time of piece, they might be able to be good Christians. At several points in The Final Martyrs, Kisuke is directly compared to Judas for his inability to stand up to persecution. At every opportunity he’s tested with pressure, he collapses and retreats in shame. He begs God for forgiveness for his cowardice in the face of apostasy.

Kisuke implicitly understands this as a Mark against his soul. Christianity has very negative things to say against those who publicly repudiate the faith for their own cowardly survival. As Christ says: “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 10:33 NASV

In a time in Japanese history when the church needed bravery, Kisuke could offer nothing but cowardice. Endo clearly wanted to embrace this deep fear within himself.

Each of the short stories explores a morality tale or moral shortcoming within this kind of dimension. While the stories never fully deliver at the level of what Silence accomplishes, Endo himself acknowledges in the afterword that his short stories are mostly testing grounds to stretch his capabilities are a writer crafting complex characters.

“In my own case, I have found that the best way to give concrete embodiment to my themes is to continue alternating between writing short stories and novels. Still, a good deal of time passes between the point when I drive the chisel into the block or ice and the moment I can first sense that my characters have begun to move. When those characters begin to move, I write a short story about them in a different locale. This allows me to breath a fuller life into them. As a result, I can only assume that the characters who appear in the short stories collected here must be living some form or other in the longer works I am composing even now.”

Each of the stories tackles different themes using his same stock of character archetypes.

World War II and its aftermath is a theme that shows up constantly in the short stories. Even stories set in the 19th century make mention of cities that would soon be destroyed by the Atom Bomb. The majority of the settings for the stories are post-war Japan where the characters relate how their lives weaves in and out of the war as the struggled with famine, tyranny, violence and destruction on a national scale.

The spiritual dimensions of war and its affect on the soul seem to deeply preoccupy Endo. In his story The Last Supper, a Japanese psychiatrist treats an alcoholic who is burying the guilt of having committed an act of cannibalism in war in a moment of starvation and desperation. As a man dying of cirrhosis from years of guilty binge drinking, Tsukada barely believes there is redemption for him so late in his life.

Lying on his deathbed, Tsukada asks his doctor, a practicing Christian, “Does this God you talk about… does he really exist? Years ago, during the war, I did something horrible. Would God really.. forgive me forgive me for that? No matter how horrible?” The doctor Kiguchu confirms that God would forgive him and Tsukada decides to confess his horrific act of cannibalism to all of the nurses listening.

Endo’s own struggle with scripture is also a theme he deals with in the stories. In the story A Sixty Year Old Man, a writer, who is implicitly supposed to be Endonhimself, muses about his spiritual maturity and evolving understanding of the Bible.

“At the time [I wrote Life of Jesus], I had optimistically thought that after a decade or so the doubts and questions which arose as I read the New Testament would be resolved, and that I could compliantly believe it all. But ten years later, even now fifteen years later at the age of sixty; I still have no feeling of resolute calm within; and sometimes the blue hell-fires of doubt flare up even more miserably than before.”

It’s clear most of the stories have semi-autobiographical elements in them. Endo explores his own life living abroad in Europe, struggling with racism, struggling with doubt, struggling with resentment for his countrymen and church fathers alike and struggling to understand how a just God could make such a cruel and devastated world as the one he lived through in Wartime Japan.

It is for this reason that delving into the collection has been a wonderful experience. Endo is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers for how rich, textured and tragic his writing is. Nobody quite captures the contradictory nature of identity and faith as well as he was able to across his books. While I wouldn’t recommend The Final Martyrs or the individual short stories as an entry point for Endo’s work, I would highly recommend it to the already initiated fans of Silence!

Published by Tyler Hummel

Editor-in-Chief at Cultural Review, Regular Film Critic for Geeks Under Grace, Published at ArcDigital, Rebeller, The DailyWire, Hollywood in Toto, Legal Insurrection and The ED Blog, Host of The AntiSocial Network Podcast

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