Shūsaku Endō

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J. Thomas Rimer

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

The perhaps too-often discussed "conflict of East and West" that began in Japan in the nineteenth century, and to which the atomic bomb made the most horrendous of contributions, finds a strong reflection in Endō's personal life. He was brought up a Catholic, an Easterner with a Western faith. Such a dual heritage troubles him…. (p. 252)

The confrontation he feels between these two ways of life and thought have naturally found their way into his fiction, notably in Chinmoku (Silence)…. In Silence, Endō sets up an aesthetic distance from his material not of twenty but of over three hundred years, in order to observe the first clashes of sensibility between East and West. The sources for his novel … are largely factual: he examines the lives of several Portuguese Catholic priests who continued to serve as missionaries to Japan after the promulgation of the edicts banning the Christian faith early in the seventeenth century. The protagonist of the novel is an amalgam of several of these men, to whom Endō gives the name Sebastian Rodrigues; he comes to Japan to work with the secret Christians, mostly poor farmers and fishermen. (p. 253)

Rodrigues … is portrayed in considerable roundness and depth…. Endō shows a most unusual ability in creating a non-Japanese character who is both credible in psychology and understandable in motivation. The novel is at least partially intended as an examination of the spiritual changes that come over the Western sensibility of Rodrigues in the "mudswamp of Japan." Early in his stay, he is hidden in a hut in a remote and mountainous area in order to avoid capture by the government authorities. This enforced leisure gives him time to write back to his colleagues in Europe, and in one of those letters he first poses the problem of the "silence of God" to which the title of the novel refers…. (p. 254)

Rodrigues has begun dimly to perceive the implications of the fact that his religion and his culture are bound up together and that, further, his own religious sensibilities can bring only destruction to those whom he is bound in good conscience to love. Later, after he leaves his place of hiding, Rodrigues undergoes his own "Temptation in the Wilderness." In this most poetic section of the novel, he travels to a remote and beautiful mountain area. There he suddenly encounters his own personal Satan in the person of Kichijiro, who, after asking his help, betrays him to the authorities.

Arrested by the police, Rodrigues is finally forced to understand the harm he and his faith have brought to Japan. (p. 255)

Rodrigues is … asked to give up his Western sensibilities, his own sense of identity, as much as he is his Christian faith. Stress on the importance of the self, on abstract concepts, on personal salvation, places the Western mentality at considerable odds with the Japanese sensibility, which emphasizes intuitive understanding and the processes of nature…. Endō finds a flexibility in his own tradition that serves to protect and permit survival; and in this particular novel, at least, he poses his concerns over the possible meeting of the two traditions in a negative configuration. The message is the same: those who abandon their Japanese sensibility (in this case, for Christianity) will become the victims. Endō … finds the imposition of the Western ego on the Japanese the most dangerous gift of all. (p. 256)

J. Thomas Rimer, "Tradition and Contemporary Consciousness: Endō Shūsakū," in his Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction (copyright © 1978 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 252-56.

Anthony Thwaite

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361

What distinguishes [Endo from the modern Japanese masters is his] deceptively simple blend of unimpeded narrative and matter-of-fact style with fidelity to Japanese behavior and psychology.

It would be easy to attribute Mr. Endo's accessibility to the fact that he is a Roman Catholic and therefore himself an "exotic" in Japan. He has been called "the Japanese Graham Greene."… [But] the label is unhelpful. What interests Mr. Endo—to the point of obsession—are the concerns of both the sacred and the secular realms: moral choice, moral responsibility….

"When I Whistle" is a seductively readable—and painful—account of these issues. Mr. Endo skillfully interviews two sets of characters from two periods of Japanese history: the militarism of the 1930's and the war years, and the brash opportunism of the early 1970's, when the country was impatient with past pieties….

What both unites and distinguishes these two otherwise disparate stories is the tenuous—in the "new" Japan, almost vanishing—filial bond between [the protagonist Ozu, a humdrum clerk, and his son, a surgeon], the great body of unacknowledged assumptions and loyalties that divides them….

One of the striking features of the novel, as of the author's previous works, is his attention to particular detail…. "When I Whistle" is full of authentic touches, the fruit of his experience, without any display of specialized learning. This informed realism effectively underpins the conflict between the old order and the new: Ozu is ignorant but right, Eiichi is sophisticated but wrong.

Mr. Endo writes about this conflict in Japanese terms because he is Japanese. But the story can just as easily be understood universally, for the author has decisively broken away from many of the features that have both made and marred the Japanese tradition. He generally avoids pregnant imagery for example, when it occasionally appears … it seems an intrusion, for all its apposite grace. The impression persists throughout "When I Whistle" that Mr. Endo—though he denies that "the truest poetry is the most feigning"—tells the truth as he sees it.

Anthony Thwaite, "Japanese Generations," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1980, p. 14.

John Updike

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261

["Silence"] is a remarkable work, a sombre, delicate, and startlingly empathetic study of a young Portuguese missionary during the relentless persecution of the Japanese Christians in the early seventeenth century. (p. 94)

One can only marvel at the unobtrusive, persuasive effort of imagination that enables a modern Japanese to take up a viewpoint from which Japan is at the outer limit of the world. (p. 97)

Endo has conceived a narrative more orthodox, in texture and thought, than most novels by twentieth-century Christians…. [The] Japanese author brings to his Pascalian themes, and even to his descriptions of torture and execution, a tact as inexorable and hypnotic as his steady gray murderous sea, a tact that glazes his dark story lustrously. (p. 98)

"When I Whistle" bears little resemblance to "Silence," except in its unruffled simplicity of style and in the recurrence of an image that evidently haunts the author, of a head bobbing far out at sea…. The novel takes place on two levels: Ozu's prewar youth, distinguished by a comically lackadaisical schooling and by his bleary-eyed chum's quixotic infatuation with a girl, Aiko, encountered by chance after school; and Ozu's postwar maturity, which finds him the father of an opportunistic young doctor, Eiichi, at a big-city hospital where one of the patients turns out to be, yes, that same Aiko, now dying of cancer…. Both levels read easily, but neither generates the awesome resonance of the monaural plot of "Silence," (pp. 98-9)

John Updike, "From Fumie to Sony," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 55, No. 48, January 14, 1980, pp. 94-102.∗

Anthony Thwaite

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299

["Volcano" is a] detailed, matter-of-fact confrontation with matters of ethics and guilt….

Akadake, the volcano of the title, is sited in Kyushu, one of Japan's two large southern islands. Is it dormant, dying or about to erupt? (p. 15)

The novel builds up pressure and suspense on the strength of its subject, and at one level it can indeed be read as a thriller. But it is also another variation on Endo's theme (seen most starkly in "Silence") of "the mud swamp"—his image of Japan as a country that absorbs everything, changes everything, destroys everything. That is why, he seems to suggest, no imported faith or ideology can take root there. In his "Life of Jesus" … Endo makes the point that "the Japanese tend to seek in their gods and Buddhas a warmhearted mother rather than a stern father." The jealous, avenging Hebraic-Christian God is thus alien to them—which is why Endo's "Life of Jesus" puts its entire emphasis on His manifestation as Son of Mary rather than Son of God—and not only because that has become a familiar Roman Catholic emphasis.

Such considerations have affected other postwar Japanese writers who are not Christians but who have tried to come to terms with this powerful alien faith…. (p. 26)

In spite of [translation] flaws, "Volcano" is a serious story, and it deserves to be read widely in the West. Endo is a less showy, altogether less "experimental" writer than Kobo Abe, his best-known contemporary. His virtues could be seen as old-fashioned ones—plot, character, motive, moral confrontation. But such virtues still have a place in fiction, East and West, and Endo gives them new life. (p. 28)

Anthony Thwaite, "Natural Force," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1980, pp. 15, 26, 28.

Thomas M. Curran

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 268

[Volcano] is a Japanese novel, and a good one, but it has strong echoes from the West. At first there are echoes of Ibsen: the classic dilemma of Dr. Stockmann, "Enemy of the People." Jinpei Suda, a volcanologist has spent his life studying Akadake, the long extinct volcano which dominates the city. Suddenly, the volcano rumbles and gives evidence of life. Jinpei's whole life and his reputation rest on his expert prediction of what the volcano will do….

But just as we are settling in to the Ibsen dilemma, a Graham Greene character takes over: He is the unfrocked French Catholic priest, Père Durand…. For him, evil in the world is enormous and Akadake is the symbol of its enormity….

Then, just as we are balancing these two men off against each other in their relationship to Akadake, their lives come together in adjacent hospital rooms on Christmas Eve. From their windows, Akadake dominates the view. At this point, Shakespeare takes over. These two old men are Lear and Gloucester. They are being forced by the terrors of nature to see themselves for the first time. (p. 525)

And the ending is Shakespeare, too. From "The Tempest": "It goes on." Both men are dead, but the luxury hotel is being built; the corrupt councilman is still gloating over anticipated profits…. And, above all, stands Akadake, the fiery mystery at the heart of things. It goes on. In this book Shusaku Endo has brought East and West together magnificently. (p. 526)

Thomas M. Curran, "Kings and Commoners: 'Volcano'," in America (© America Press, 1980; all rights reserved), Vol. 142, No. 24, June 21, 1980, pp. 525-26.

Tom Kemme

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

Six months before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a vivisection was performed on an American prisoner at Fukuoka University Medical School. The Sea and Poison is a fictionalized account of this operation and its effect upon two young interns…. (p. 269)

The sea is a powerful, expanding metaphor which subtly permeates the novel and suggests a power that is beyond man's control, and, simultaneously, a power that must be resisted if man hopes to have peace within himself and to live in harmony with his fellow men. Without being shrill or didactic, Endo's carefully crafted novel is poetic, profound, and prophetic; it is a realistic, probing classic for men of all nations. (p. 270)

Tom Kemme, "Fiction: 'The Sea and Poison'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 40, No. 8, November, 1980, p. 269-70.

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