A big, entertaining Japan-Poland co-production with an impressive pedigree, great production values, charismatic performances and an important story to tell.
Photo ©2015 “PERSONA NON GRATA” FILM PARTNERS
Persona Non Grata (2015)
Directed by Cellin Gluck
Screenplay by Tetsuro Kamata and Hiromichi Matsuo
Starring Toshiaki Karasawa, Koyuki, Borys Szyc and Agnieszka Grochowska
Chiune Sugihara, issuing transit visas against the orders of his government, saved 6,000 Jewish people from the Holocaust. His bravery cost him his career and very nearly his life. The film documents his courageous actions and some of the experiences that influenced them.
“Cellin Gluck’s masterful biopic tells an extraordinary tale of courage and compassion.”
The year 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, and the output of the Japanese film industry certainly reflected this significant milestone. That output—including Haruhiko Arai’s When I Was Most Beautiful and Yoji Yamada’s Nagasaki: Memories of My Son—reflects the significant scars that conflict left on the Japanese psyche and the very complicated relationship Japan has with finding context for their part in that war.
Though these narratives are consistently anti-war, they do not focus on the merciless colonization of Asia by the Imperial Japanese war machine but rather on the desperation of innocent Japanese citizens in the closing months of the conflict. These are stories of loss, self-sacrifice and perseverance, often hinting at the rebirth of the country as a peaceful, prosperous nation. Even films like The Eternal Zero, often criticized as a rightist glorification of the kamikaze, is little more than the story of the senseless squandering of a generation’s sons for an unsavoury cause. In short, it is a genre in which heroes are in short supply. The story of Chiune Sugihara is a powerful exception to this rule.
Sugihara, often called the “Schindler of Japan,” was a Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania credited with saving 6,000 Jewish lives. He did this by issuing transit visas—against the orders of the Japanese government—that allowed stateless Jews to escape the Holocaust. The film Chiune Sugihara (English title: Persona Non Grata) was directed by Cellin Gluck (Sideways, Oba: The Last Samurai), whose own Japanese-American/Jewish heritage makes him eminently qualified to tackle the subject.
The film opens in Manchuria. Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa), an expert in the Russian language and in diplomacy, is unwittingly pulled into a deceit allowing the Japanese military to take control of a strategic Soviet railroad. The scheme leads to the tragic machine-gunning of innocent victims. Labelled persona non grata, Sugihara is reassigned as a vice-consul in Lithuania.
When Hitler and Stalin sign a non-aggression pact and the Soviets occupy Lithuania, it becomes clear that the local Jewish population is trapped and dangerously exposed to the Nazis. Hundreds gather at the consulate desperate for escape visas. Sugihara, disgusted by his experience in Manchu- ria, and encouraged by his wife Yukiko (Koyuki), decides to take decisive action. What follows—the exhaustive effort to sign every visa possible, subterfuge with the German, Soviet and Japanese authorities, and the ensuing collapse of Sugihara’s world and career—is riveting stuff, combining weighty moral issues with “Boys’ Own Adventure”-style heroics.
It is refreshing to see actor Karasawa breathe life into this iconic character; he is at once determined, conflicted and surprisingly suave. His mastery of English adds a sense of the genuine to his interactions with foreign characters, particularly his friendship with Polish intelligence officer Pesh (Borys Szyc). Japanese films targeting domestic audiences often stumble here, treating foreign characters and languages as window dressing. This is not the case under Gluck’s assured direction.
Given its subject matter, Persona Non Grata can be forgiven for occasionally slipping into hagiography. In the end, Gluck’s film is a big, stirring historical melodrama with an impressive pedigree, great production values and an important story to tell.
Persona Non Grata makes its Canadian premiere this June as part of the Toronto Japanese Film Festival.