Movie review: Persona Non Grata (2015)

Every once in a while there is a movie that sticks with you and even deepens with time. Persona Non Grata is one of those movies.

Persona Non Grata hasn’t been released as a major movie in the US. Yet. The movie premiered in Lithuania, grossed over $6 million in Japan in December 2015, and has been making the rounds of film festivals, such as the 25th Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.

This historical drama focuses on Chiune Sugihara, an unassuming Japanese diplomat. Sugihara studied at the Harbin Institute in the northeast of China, devoting himself to mastering Russian. His goal was to use his Russian language skills to help Japan as a diplomat/spy in Moscow.

An unfortunate incident while working in Manchuria in the 1930s cost him that dream. Although not technically his fault, he was blamed for the deaths of Russians who attempted to steal trains from the Japanese in Manchuria. The Soviets banned him from living and working in the Soviet Union.

After cooling his heels in Japan for several years—during which time he courted and then married a friend’s sister, Sugihara was sent to Lithuania. His order was to create a consulate and spying organization. He set out to do that, employing a Pole who helped him with both tasks. (In reality, about a dozen Poles routinely provided him with information.)

While in Lithuania, he witnessed Jewish refugees pouring into Lithuania, befriended many Jews, and heard horror stories from them.

He watched German and Soviet movements in Europe and realized that through their non-aggression pact, the Germans and the Soviets were dividing up Europe. The Germans, he suspected, would turn on the Soviets, and when they did, the Germans would be preoccupied with the Soviets and Japan would be left on its own to keep the Americans at bay. Japan would be forced into war with the Americans, a war it would lose. (How prescient he really was is unclear.)

He also realized that when the Soviets enter Lithuania, the Jews would be in dire trouble. They would end up trapped in Lithuania, unable to leave. If they were to leave, they needed to leave now.

Sugihara was in a quandary. As consulates slowly closed all around with the approach of the Soviet forces, the Japanese consulate was the final hope of the Jewish refugees. As long as they had a destination visa, they only needed a transit visa to safely travel out of the country. The Japanese consulate was mobbed.

Sugihara contacted Japan. He was not given permission to issue transit visas. He watched the refugees day after day and pondered his longtime desire to change the world. He decided, even at the risk to his family, he would disobey orders.

Day after day refugees lined up at the consulate to obtain transit visas from him. An employee at the consulate had a stamp created for Sugihara to use to create transit visa—which saved time and his hand. (The stamp really existed but it is unknown who gave it to him….and if there was only one.)

He continued issuing transit visas, even at the train station, up until the whistle of his train blew. The employee at the consulate who had given him the stamp handed him a list of the names of the people he issued the visas to—2,139 visas for 6,000 people. (Today the descendants of the Jews that Sugihara issued visas to number over 40,000.)

Sugihara died in 1986 at the age of 86. He left behind no biography, no records. He was unassuming to the last. The director of the documentary pieced together bits and pieces from here and there. Sugihara is not well known in Japan, though Japan has recently recognized him with honors. Israel awarded him the title “Righteous Among the Nations”, an honorary title to non-Jews who helped saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Children in Lithuania, where Sugihara issued the transit visas, routinely learn about him in school.

In the Q&A after the screening, the director was asked if any of the Jewish survivors have approached him. Everywhere Persona Non Grata has played, he reported. Everywhere except in Indianapolis, he has been approached by descendants of survivors carrying the transit visas that Sugihara gave their ancestors.

Persona Non Grata is mostly in Japanese (with English subtitles) and English, with other languages (like Russian) thrown in. The film offers a fresh view into World War II—from the perspective of a Japanese diplomat/spy who ended up saving Jews. Hopefully the film will have a general release in theaters. I would love to see it again.

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