In recent days, I made the time to watch a couple of movies that told the stories of two very different Japanese men from very different eras. One was a Japanese-produced drama, the other a U.S.-produced independent documentary.
Despite their differences, though, the men had some interesting similarities. Both were products of Japan’s culture, values and educational systems and were, in their respective fields, men who stood out and excelled.
Each also made their biggest marks, however, in their endeavors outside of Japan and by going against the grain of their superiors — and thus impacting the lives of thousands.
Regarding the Japanese-produced drama, I’ve written in a couple of recent columns about its director, Cellin Gluck. He helmed “Persona Non Grata,” a major motion picture produced by Nippon Television’s movie division that brings to life the story of Chiune Sugihara.
Sugihara was the WWII-era Japanese national who, as Japan’s consul to Lithuania, granted visas to European Jews fleeing the advancing German army — and probable death in Nazi extermination camps.
While Sugihara’s story has been told in Japanese-produced dramas before, mostly for domestic Japanese consumption, and in Western-produced documentaries such as 2000’s “Conspiracy of Kindness” and 1998’s Oscar-winning short live-action movie “Visas and Virtue,” the story of Sugihara’s deed has been — inexplicably, to me — passed over by Hollywood.
So, while his staggering accomplishment is not unknown, Sugihara’s deed is nevertheless far less recognized in a popular context compared with that of Oskar Schindler, thanks to the Steven Spielberg-directed “Schinder’s List” from 1993.
“Persona Non Grata” is significant, then, for taking the opportunity to tell Sugihara’s story to a wider international audience — and it succeeds by doing so with big-budget production values and visuals, and solid storytelling thanks to Gluck’s steady hand from a script written by Tetsuro Kamata and Hiromichi Matsuo.
The other movie about a Japanese national who made his mark beyond the shores of his homeland is titled “The Real Miyagi” and tells the story of Fumio Demura, a karateka who came to the U.S. in the early 1960s and, perhaps more than anyone else, helped popularize karate to a mass U.S. — and international — audience.
Written and directed by Kevin Derek, this documentary gets its title from “The Karate Kid” movie franchise. While Pat Morita gave life to the role of that movie’s karate sensei, Miyagi, it was Demura who was Morita’s stunt double, giving the fight scenes — and the teaching sequences, when Morita channels Demura — its authenticity.
The cinematic alchemy that merged Morita’s humor and Demura’s teachings earned Morita an Oscar nomination, made the Miyagi character an iconic pop culture figure and created a lifelong friendship between Morita and Demura.
Interesting to me is how both Sugihara and Demura were products of Japanese upbringings, yet each had to choose to break with the dictates of their Japan-based superiors to make their respective marks. In Sugihara’s case, it was his government superiors in Japan who ordered him not to issue the thousands of visas. In Demura’s case, as “The Real Miyagi” tells it, it was his karate school’s leadership that was against Demura and his American karate students putting on choreographed demonstrations at the long-defunct Japanese Village and Deer Park in Orange County.
The defiance paid off. Even though Sugihara’s actions caused him and his family personal suffering and cost him his career in Japan’s diplomatic corps, he not only saved lives, before he died he did receive accolades for his selfless act. Demura, meantime, won over his sensei and grew his reputation as an advocate for karate, authoring several books, spreading karate worldwide and launching a career as a stuntman in Hollywood. He even inspired a Hong Kong actor and martial artist to take up nunchaku as a weapon. (His name was Bruce Lee.)
“The Real Miyagi” can be seen now on Netflix. As for “Persona Non Grata,” it played theatrically in Japan and has been screened at several festivals, but unknown at this writing are plans for a U.S. theatrical release or a home video release.
In a world of #OscarsSoWhite, and disrespect at the most recent Academy Awards telecast (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has since issued an apology after receiving a letter of complaint signed by its Asian American and Asian members), it’s heartening to know that there are movies like “Persona Non Grata” and “The Real Miyagi” featuring Asians — Japanese, in this case — that tell universal stories of human triumph. When Hollywood tells you there are no such stories, don’t believe it.
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.