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Telling the 'Virtue' of Japan's Oskar Schindler

Movies: The 90-person cast and crew donated their time for the film about a consul general to Lithuania who wrote some 1,600 visas for Jews trying to escape the Nazis in 1940.

May 26, 1997|ROBERT STEVENS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Chris Tashima was first offered the role of Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara in Tim Toyama's one-act play "Visas and Virtues," it didn't take long for him to accept.

"Being an Asian actor you don't get a chance to play heroes," Tashima, 37, says. "The fact that the play was about Sugihara excited me. . . . The chance to portray him onstage for even a moment would be great."

In 1940, Sugihara, then 40-year-old Japanese consul general to Lithuania, wrote some 1,600 visas for Jews attempting to escape the Nazis. Japan had told Sugihara to stop giving out the documents, but he continued even though such actions could have ended his career.

Because one visa allowed an entire family to travel, Sugihara, now known as "Japan's Oskar Schindler," is credited in saving between 2,000 to 6,000 lives. Though "Visas and Virtue," based on these events, ended its eight-week run at the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood in December 1995 (it was shown along with other one-act plays), the story is being told once again, this time in the form of a 26-minute short film by the same name.

"There are so many negative things about Japan, especially around that era . . . nothing to be proud of, certainly," says Tashima, who also co-adapted the play for the screen and directed the film. "This was something that connected with me in that way. It was something from Japan that spoke to the world and said this was a good person even though he was Japanese."

Toyama, who besides scripting the play was executive producer on "Visas," first heard of Sugihara's story from a 1994 National Public Radio feature. "I was struck by how compelling and how inspiring the story was," says Toyama, 45, who also works as a paralegal. "Part of me also said, 'My god, this will make a great play.' "

Sugihara spent 28 days writing the visas, until he was forced by Japan to leave Lithuania and go to Berlin. For the next seven years, Sugihara still served as a Japanese diplomat. Upon returning to Japan, however, he was fired from the Foreign Ministry (the Foreign Ministry says that he was fired because of downsizing brought on by the Allies, not Sugihara's actions in Lithuania). According to the filmmakers, not until a survivor found Sugihara in the late '60s did he know whether any of those he had given visas had lived. Sugihara died in 1986 at the age of 86.

While adapting the play, Tashima and others visited one of the Sugihara survivors, Huntington Beach resident Hanni Vogelweid, 73. "When we first met her I was almost in shock," Tashima says. "It really hit you over the head that there are people alive because of him. Without a doubt she would have been killed. She couldn't stop thanking us for doing this film."

All of the 90-person cast and crew on "Visas" donated their time on the project. Around 30 people stayed on set for the seven-day shoot, while the rest found time for the filming around their other jobs. Though the shoot was short, Tashima says months were put into planning the film. In addition, more than 270 people came together to finance the movie. Costumes and food, among other things, were donated to the project. The filmmakers are still trying to find money to make extra prints and videocassettes of the film.

"A lot of hours were put in by a lot of people," Tashima says. "It's been quite remarkable."

* "Visas and Virtue" will be screened today-Monday, May 31 and June 1, 10 and 11 a.m. at Laemmle's Sunset 5.

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