Persona Non Grata (2015)
Nicholas Driscoll
May 27, 2016
Note: review may contain spoilers

Have you ever heard of Sugihara Chiune? I stumbled upon his name some years ago when I was looking into Christianity in Japan—and Sugihara was an Orthodox Christian. That’s not why most people remember him, at least among those who do. Sugihara Chiune is known as Japan’s Schindler because, like Schindler, he helped save thousands of Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Sugihara was a diplomat for Japan who lived in Lithuania and issued some 2000 visas to desperate Jews so they could escape the country, ending up saving an estimated 6000 lives. This mass issuance of visas was technically not okayed by the Japanese government—it was a personal act of compassion for a suffering and distraught people. According to multiple sources I have seen, even when he left Lithuania, he continued signing visas as he got on the train, going so far as to throw signed visas out of the windows as the train left the station.

Sugihara’s story is a truly moving one—a story which, after I learned of it, I wished was better known. I remember those several years ago watching a documentary about Sugihara and wishing there was a really good movie based off of his life. Schindler got one. Why not Sugihara? So I was pretty excited when I heard about the movie Sugihara Chiune was coming out in late 2015—known by the international title Persona Non Grata. Last year I had my students make YouTube shows in English, and I decided to make a YouTube show in Japanese to show them a bit of solidarity. My YouTube show was a movie review show—and the first episode was a review of Persona Non Grata. So as you can see, I had some fairly high expectations for the film. The result? Well, it’s no Schindler’s List, but Persona Non Grata is certainly a touching, if somewhat awkward, little movie.

The story of the movie goes back a bit before the events in Lithuania, exploring Sugihara’s career in Manchuria, and it touches on his romance with a Russian hottie, and the viciousness of the war. Pretty soon, though (after a sequence in which he romances and marries a Japanese wife), Sugihara moves to Lithuania, where he works at the Japanese consulate. Sugihara quickly becomes aware of the plight of the Jewish peoples there. The Jews crowd around the Japanese consulate, desperate to find a way to escape the Nazis, who have taken over the country. Sugihara at first resists helping them without direct permission from Japan, but as he gets to know the Jewish people better, when he hears their stories, when even his son shows them compassion, he is moved to act. The movie centers mostly on how he decided to help the Jews, the process of helping them, and the aftermath.

Though I watched Persona Non Grata in raw Japanese in a Japanese movie theater, the story was pretty easy to follow—not least of all because significant sections of the movie are actually performed in English, and there are English subtitles (along with the Japanese) for transitions to new places, as well as for the opening text of the film. The movie seems to have been made for an international audience, really.

Now some of you, upon hearing that much of the movie is performed in English, are probably cringing—and with good reason. Whether its Japanese actors mispronouncing English words to the point you can’t understand them, or American “actors” performing with all the nuance of a common shrub, or just the almost inevitable poorly written English dialogue that would sound ridiculous even delivered by the best actors in the world, Japanese movies have a... strained relationship with the English language. However, while Persona Non Grata doesn’t completely avoid some of these hazards (the lines can still sound stilted and unnatural at times), for the most part the English performances in the film are quite competent. The fact that many of the actors in the film are European doesn’t hurt, and neither does the fact that the director, Cellin Gluck, is American. Sugihara is played by Toshiaki Karasawa, and his English, too, is quite good—perhaps better even than Ken Watanabe, who shows up in so many Hollywood films. He doesn’t sound like a native English speaker, but neither should he—his English is equal to the task of his performance.

And his performance is quite good. I know Karasawa mostly from his stint as the designer of the titular house in All About Our House (2001) and more recently from In The Hero (2014), in which Karasawa played a sort of Super Sentai stuntman with Don Quixote tendencies. It was his In The Hero performance which was foremost in my mind as I watched Persona Non Grata, and the latter film seems an oddly appropriate follow-up to his justice-obsessed stuntman. At any rate, he turns in a fine if somewhat subdued performance here as well, going through the various stages of Sugihara’s life with dignity and showing a sort of restrained morality in his bearing, but not quite reaching the level of pathos that this kind of role might seem to require.

Overall, again with the exception of some clunker lines, the performances of each of the leads are quite competent. Koyuki’s tender performance as Sugihara’s wife sticks out, as does Borys Szyc’s gruff portrayal of Sugihara’s right-hand man. The worst performance is easily the kid playing Sugihara’s son—the little dude doesn’t really seem to understand what acting is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of the performances are phenomenal, but they functioned on a basic level. If that sounds like weak praise, it is—I wasn’t very impressed with the movie overall, and many of the performances and the material they had to work with made the film feel unrefined, stretching for greatness, but only reaching “eh, not too bad.”.

That said, the story itself doesn’t always gel particularly well, either. Sometimes the movie doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. The English text at the beginning proclaims that the movie is about how Sugihara loved Japan, which got a big “Huh?” from me. Perhaps the studio was afraid that the movie would come across as anti-Japan since, well, Japan really wasn’t interested in saving the Jews—they were allies with the Nazis after all. There are also a few action sequences that seem out of place—such as a scene early on in which an assassin is hunting Sugihara on a train, which culminates with his hot Russian lover (the real Sugihara was married to a Russian for a time) saving his bacon, and a car chase later on. These action scenes felt wrong to me, awkward, unnecessary, and seem thrown in to compete with Spectre, which came out the same weekend in Japan. Again, they just seem to misinterpret what is interesting about the story. Overall, it comes across as a mildly schizophrenic Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special.

The music by Naoki Sato isn’t altogether successful either. I have really liked some of Sato’s work before, such as his score for the Always movies and the Parasyte films—but here as often as not the sweeping instrumental themes felt overdone, like it was begging the audience to cry—“Please shed a tear! Please feel moved deep in your heart!” It’s not all bad, but the impression it made was a bit desperate.

Perhaps my high expectations hurt my enjoyment of Persona Non Grata. The film isn’t terrible, but the best I can say about it is that it is merely competent, yet unfocused in execution. To me, the film reeks of studio intervention, and the more I think about the film, the weaker it appears to me. On a personal level, though this wasn’t so important for the movie to be great, I was also hoping for a bit more of a mention of Sugihara’s faith, and we do see him visiting a church and making the sign of the cross, but that’s about it. Persona Non Grata is a fractured film with some decent performances and a subject matter that screams for a just cinematic telling—and while I admire the effort here, the result, diplomatically speaking, needs a bit more polish (despite being filmed in Poland) before it can really shine.