INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Chiune Sugihara — ‘Persona Non Grata’ Tells the Tale

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GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTONBy GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Two weeks ago, I began relaying my encounter with Cellin Gluck, director of “Persona Non Grata,” a dramatization of the story of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, aka the “Japanese Schindler.” (Read it online at http://tinyurl.com/zqbs3wv)

Sugihara is credited with saving the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War II, which was why he was dubbed as such — but since he predated Oskar Schindler, saved more lives and, ultimately, did so for no financial benefit, it’s a bit of a misnomer.

Sugihara, in fact, had nothing to gain except a clear conscience and everything to lose — job, livelihood and reputation. He disobeyed Tokyo and issued the visas. It was purely altruistic and truly unfortunate was the result for him, career-wise, an example of the cynical saying “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Japan’s postwar government dismissed Sugihara and he sank into obscurity, living in Russia and using his Russian language skills in business to support his family in Japan — until, years later, some of those whose lives he saved found him.

(If I’m not mistaken, he purposely modified his surname to “Sugiwara” and for his first name he went by Sempo, an alternate reading of Chiune. This made him harder to track down, but he did it to fly under the radar of any Russians who might remember the name Chiune Sugihara, who negotiated some deals that got the best of them. According to Gluck, the movie’s title, “Persona Non Grata,” is an allusion to how the Russians classified Sugihara, not what the Japanese government thought of him.)

Once rediscovered, Sugihara’s survivors pressed Israel to honor him and the nation would eventually bestow upon him and his family some of its highest honors. In Lithuania, where he served Japan and wrote the visas that saved so many, a street was named for him. Eventually, after his death, Japan recognized Sugihara in 1992 with the Nagasaki Peace Prize.

By 1997, Chris Tashima would portray Sugihara in a short-form feature titled “Visas and Virtue” and in 1998 win an Oscar for it.

Still, when it comes to name recognition, Chiune Sugihara is no Oskar Schindler. His story cried out for a bigger retelling.

But in the years since Tashima’s take on the story, no Hollywood studio stepped up to tell Sugihara’s tale on a larger canvas. With all the hubbub at present about an all-white lineup for the Academy Awards, you’d think a Sugihara movie would have been an easy call to greenlight. The reason why it never happened may be myriad — no 400-pound gorilla to push the story, no script, Holocaust movie burnout, etc.

Me, I think it’s because there are simply, overall, no “A-list” Asian American actors and actresses. For good or bad, a Hollywood studio likes the so-called “A list” because a name like Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Will Smith or even Adam Sandler is a brand name that draws attention — and, presumably sells tickets, which means making money.

But, male or female, there are no Asian American A-list actors in movies or TV. Even native Asian talent, like Japanese nationals Ken Watanabe or Hiroyuki Sanada aren’t enough of a factor box-office-wise to cast as the lead in a Sugihara movie.

And among working, non-A-list Asian American male actors, no one the right age is on Hollywood’s radar. (I’m sure anyone affiliated with East West Players would dispute that, of course. Greg Watanabe, who played Mike Masaoka in Broadway’s “Allegiance,” would certainly be a candidate.)

Toshiaki Karasawa as Chiune Sugihara in a scene from "Persona Non Grata."

Toshiaki Karasawa as Chiune Sugihara in a scene from “Persona Non Grata.”

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In a way, however, maybe it was Cellin Gluck’s good luck that nobody in Hollywood gave making a Sugihara movie a try, because it gave him the opportunity to make it. That, and Nippon Television’s film division.

Shot it in 2014, “Persona Non Grata” came about in part because of Gluck’s relationship with actor Toshiaki Karasawa.

According to Gluck, Nippon Television “had been wanting to do something on Sugihara, a Japanese hero, for several years.”

As Gluck told it, “In late 2013, they approached Karasawa and asked him to play Sugihara. “He said, ‘Where is it going to be [shot?] and they said, ‘We’re going to shoot it overseas.’ ‘I gotta speak English?’ ‘Yeah.’”

Gluck said Karasawa, while not fluent, is able to carry on a conversation in English — and he’s an actor, implying that he could learn the lines. Karasawa responded to NTV, “If this involves anything other than Japan, I want Cellin to do it.”

“NTV reached out to me and asked, ‘What do you say?’ and I said, ‘I’m available.’” It was, seemingly, the perfect choice.

According to Gluck (and when I spoke with him), “Persona Non Grata” is still playing theatrically in Japan, but there are as yet no plans to release it in the U.S., either theatrically or via home video. For now, NTV International will have the movie “make the festival circuit — and hope for the best.” So, for the time being, anyone in this country wanting to see it will have to see it in Japan.

As for Gluck’s upcoming projects, we joked that he has the typical “several productions in varying stages of development.” He said, “You’re only as good as your last job and this one isn’t done selling yet.”

But he was inspired by his experience doing a Japanese version of “Sideways,” so he’d love to do something along those lines again, even for TV, say a crossover of a hit U.S. TV show and a hit Japanese TV show.

So, while “Persona Non Grata” may take a while to reach our shores, I’m hopeful we’ll be seeing more from Cellin Gluck sooner rather than later.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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