The Chiune Sugihara Story

Persona Non Grata: The Chiune Sugihara Story  (杉原千畝)

20 November 2015 (Fri), Tokyo cinema

I coincidentally happened to be reading about Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who saved thousands of Jewish refugees during the war, so the film caught my eye. Sugihara’s story has been dramatized before, but this was a major Toho release that is obviously being aimed at foreign markets; for one thing, it’s directed by an American, albeit a half-Japanese guy born in Japan, and a good part of it is in English. The clips I’ve seen of previous stagings (Japanese TV drama, Australian play) were long on the melodrama, which the story lends itself to in lesser hands. That made me wary of another version. But a friend was so effusive in her praise that it raised my hopes.

The film covers a lot of territory, including Sugihara’s early triumph in negotiations with the Russians, who consequently declared him persona non grata; his posting to Lithuania, where the mass visa issuance took place; and his later postings to Berlin and Prague, where he spied on the Russians and begged his country to pull out of the Tripartite Pact before it was too late (predicting Japan’s outright loss if America should enter the war). There were several subplots as well – Sugihara’s Russian ex-lover begging for favors, a foreign minister prone to yelling a lot, gunmen all over the place, Sugihara’s courting of his wife in an overly long sequence including cherry blossoms and other seasonal scenes, the recruiting of a Polish immigrant spy as the consulate driver. Lots going on.

It took about five minutes into the film to realize that Hollywood was the model here, and not in a good way. In one of the opening scenes, Sugihara is on a train running from a would-be assassin. He bursts into a cabin and into the bathroom. The assassin follows, points his gun and says a clever line, only to be bashed on the head from behind just in time by a woman spouting her own clever line, the type of scene that exists only in the heads of filmmakers. It wasn’t remotely believable – they’re going to kill him on a crowded train? a gunman really speaks before he shoots? – or justified either here or later in the script. Why were they after Sugihara in the first place? Beats me. I suppose the answer is: to make the film more interesting. For teenagers. And this artificial injection of suspense and action finds its way into the film at other points, much to its detriment. Sugihara’s story is interesting on its own, both before and after the visa events that made him famous. But the writer and director seem intent on making a “movie” rather than telling the story they were handed.

I could have forgiven some of that as dramatic license, but there was no excuse for the clichéd dialogue. Despite all the English (as well as snips of other languages), I have to assume at this level that this was written by Japanese and translated. It’s geared more toward television drama, with way too much talking and not enough showing – what a contrast with Mizoguchi a few days earlier. It was almost like a parody: “I wish I could fly away like a bird”, “So I hear the Germans have invaded Poland” and such. I can’t believe they spent this much money and couldn’t find a proper scriptwriter. My teeth were on edge throughout.

Worse, there was no evident sense of motivation or inner torment for Sugihara. The key visa incident was followed by long stretches of him in later postings preaching against the alliance with Germany, insisting a bit too correctly that the US would eventually enter the war and that Japan would lose – an unlikely line for a low-ranking diplomat at that time in Japan. They need to show his reservations without going on about it, but this director didn’t seem to have it in him. In the end, we got little sense of who Sugihara was, what prompted him to act as he did, what dangers he faced (other than the occasional men with guns, who had an odd tendency to fire away in public), or anything else really. He started out a cipher and remained one. It might have helped if they switched off the diplomatic poker face to give us some reaction every now and then, though maybe that was the actor’s fault.

The plot was too diffuse in any case. The opening, where the foreign ministry refused to acknowledge Sugihara’s presence to one of the refugees in later years, never got its closing in terms of why the ministry was being so evasive. It felt tacked on. The film did spend plenty of time on the visa incident, its raison d’être, which I had assumed would be the climax. But it dragged on from there to incorporate Sugihara’s further postings and pacifist notions, which were fairly standard fare. It then shifted to Vladivostok (which didn’t involve Sugihara at all) and on to a final sequence where the refugee who had been seeking Sugihara for years happened to spot him in Red Square, as one does. And that doesn’t even go into all the disconnected would-be assassins chasing him or his former Russian lover, a subplot that was beyond dumb. This is a movie, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with a few twists in the truth for dramatic effect. This director, though, clearly wants to turn Sugihara into James Bond rather than a normal man torn between duty and conscience, a much more compelling story.

There was one excellent, brutal sequence when the Germans were randomly executing Jews in a cul-de-sac. The murderous face on the German commander was chilling. It lost momentum at the end, when a soldier hesitates to shoot one fleeing Jew (the commander does it himself), and fell apart completely with the Spielberg-like ending where the girl being taken from her dead mother is yelling “Mommy!” The lack of hysterics to that point had been much more effective. (There’s a symmetry of sort with a later sequence where a son being taken from his dead father is calling “Daddy!” Didn’t work there either.)

The music was repetitive and dull. As for the interpolated music, I wondered whether “In the Mood” would really have been playing at a German ball at that time in Europe. It’s true that the war hadn’t begun yet, and I assume the director did his research. But it didn’t feel right. I would have thought a waltz or something European more appropriate.

Karasawa Toshiaki showed little fire as Sugihara, giving little sense of him as a person. That may have been due partly to the script, but his range of emotions was uncomfortably narrow. Diplomat or no, Sugihara must have had a personality somewhere in there. A friend commented that the actor’s eyes had little life, which I thought a good observation. Koyuki, who I had seen on stage a few weeks earlier in Kyoto, was way too modern in her portrayal. It didn’t help that I had just seen Gion Bayashi, which featured women who actually grew up in that era. I suspect that is more a problem with the American director (who doesn’t seem to know much about Japan) than the actress; for instance, would a woman in that era really put her head on her husband’s shoulder in public? Other actors were hurt by the silly story and script – it’s probably impossible to say those lines and sound real.

Basically the director took the easy Hollywood route: a tendency to explain everything, random action sequences, melodrama rather than real emotions, absurd plot developments. It undercut the seriousness of the story. Sugihara’s memory is poorly served here, a real shame. Not a film to recommend. At all.

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