Mother Teresa and Her World (1979)
by Shigeki Chiba
This documentary, by Japanese filmmaker Shigeki Chiba, was the second film to have been made about Mother Teresa. The first was one from 1969 by BBC. Can a film change your life? It happened to a young Japanese student, Shigeki Chiba. Through an interpreter*, he spoke to Johanna Bennett about how Kurosawa’s film of courage, To Live, changed his life and set him on the path to becoming a Catholic
It may be easier to be a Christian in Japan nowadays than in the past, but it is still rare. Only a fraction of the Japanese population is Christian. Many were martyred in centuries past, but their descendants keep the faith to this day. Awardwinning Catholic Japanese documentary film-maker Shigeki Chiba (pictured) does not come from this noble lineage, though. He is a convert who came to Catholicism through an unusual route – film-making. On a recent visit to Australia, he told how, as a 19-year-old economics student, he saw the Kurosawa movie To Live and was so impressed he talked his father into letting him switch to film studies. The movie tells the story of a cancer patient who has only six months to live, but “really lived that half year”, said Shigeki. The film inspired Shigeki, who comes from Kyoto, near Tokyo. “That movie gave people a message of courage in living and I (decided) I wanted to make movies that would give people courage.” This may seem strange nowadays, but this was Japan in the early 1950s, this was post-war Japan, economically destitute Japan, many of whose people were suffering from the dreaded disease of the times, tuberculosis.
Despite his early ideals, Shigeki was not inspired to become a Catholic until the late 1970s after meeting and making a film about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. They met through his wife, Yoshimi Chiba, who worked for the Tokyo Catholic newspaper Katorikku Shimbun, and through her contact with Cardinal Shirawanagi of Tokyo, who knew Mother Teresa.
The result was Shigeki’s award-winning documentary on Mother Teresa and her work with the poor of Calcutta and his conversion to Catholicism. “First I wanted to give the story of Mother Teresa to the Japanese (then) I wanted to have the same values she had and they came from Catholicism,” said Shigeki. “She had much humour and joy. She would be saintly when in the church praying, but when she was helping she was like any other person, laughing and talking.” Shigeki’s oldest daughter was born around this time – 1977 – and the Chibas decided to name her for the saintly nun. Shigeki recently made another award-winning documentary with a Catholic theme, The Railroad of Love, which tells the story of Fr Tony Glynn, who hailed from Lismore in NSW, but spent more than 40 years in Japan – from 1952 until his death in Nara in 1994 –preaching the message of reconciliation between Australia and Japan. Fr Glynn had gone to Japan in 1952 to work with the controversial Fr Lionel Marsden, who had been a prisoner on the notorious Burma-Thai railroad built by prisoners of war and forced labourers from Asia, most of whom died constructing it. Tony Glynn had been inspired by Fr Marsden’s call to put aside hatred and work for reconciliation. Tony was among the students to whom Fr Marsden made the call when he spoke at Woodlawn College in Lismore, where he himself had been a student. Tony Glynn decided he would follow this path, too.
It was to be his life’s work. He became a priest and then joined Fr Marsden’s mission in Japan. Initially, he collected food and clothing from overseas for the impoverished Japanese. Later, he toured New Zealand and Australia with Japanese cultural artefacts. One consequence of that tour was the decision by 80 ex-servicemen to respond to his reconciliation appeal by returning samurai swords they had souvenired. Shigeki’s movie portrays Fr Glynn’s life and his convictions about peace founded on justice and the absolute need of mutual forgiveness if real peace is to be preserved. Anthony Field, of The Wiggles fame, plays the priest.
Shigeki said he made the film after he heard Fr Marsden’s story. He had also been shocked to learn of the realities of World War II and the brutalities meted out by the Japanese on their enemies and prisoners. Many younger Japanese do not know about this because it is deliberately kept from them, said Shigeki. Schoolbooks don’t mention it. He said he made The Railroad of Love to tell young Japanese about their past, as you cannot be reconciled to something of which you know nothing. The profits from the film will go to another group damaged by the war – the ‘comfort women’, the mainly Asian women who were forced to become sex slaves to the Japanese military during the war. Many are now old and extremely poor, as they could not marry after the war because of what had happened to them. “I learnt of those that perished on the Burma-Thai railroad and felt the need to do something in reparation,” said Shigeki. “I learnt about the ‘comfort women’ too and I got the desire to tell young Japanese about (these things) so that they might do something.” One of the things he would like younger Japanese to do is to apologise to those so abused by their forebears on the Railroad of Love and to the women who were sexually abused. He set an example when he came to Australia to take part in the Anzac Eve reconciliation prayer service at St Mary’s Cathedral last month. Shigeki, his wife and their daughter Theresa apologised on behalf of ordinary Japanese to former Dutch ‘comfort woman’ Jan RuffO’Herne for the abuse meted out to the ‘comfort women’. Jan, who now lives in South Australia, hugged them and accepted their apology in front of the 800-strong congregation.
Shigeki learned soon after that The Railroad of Love would share this year’s Grand Prix Japanese Catholic media award. The film also featured in last year’s Japanese festival Under the Southern Cross, held in Sydney, Canberra and Lismore. Shigeki said those younger Japanese who do know of what happened in the war are ashamed of their forebears’ behaviour and do wish to say ‘sorry’.
Fr Paul Glynn, the brother of Fr Tony Glynn, translated for Shigeki Chiba. Fr Paul has also spent many years working for reconciliation between Japan and Australia and helped organise the ecumenical Anzac Eve prayer service at St Mary’s Cathedral.