Director of Japanese-Jewish heritage reflects on Japanese diplomat who saved Jewish refugees

2016 LAAPFF Portraits - PERSONA NON GRATA - Director, Cellin Gluck - Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, CA - Friday, April 22, 2016. Photo By Sthanlee B. Mirador | LAAPFF | VCOnline

Cellin Gluck, director of “Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara.” photo by Stanlee Mirador

Cellin Gluck is not your typical Japanese American. He was actually born in Wakayama Prefecture to a Jewish American father from New York, Jay Gluck, and a Japanese American mother, Sumi Hiramoto Gluck, who was born and raised in Lodi, Calif.

His parents met in New York, years after his Nisei mother was incarcerated in the Rohwer, Ark. concentration camp during World War II. As Sumi was selected as an exchange student to Japan, Jay would follow, eventually becoming an English professor at Wakayama University.

Cellin Gluck spent his “formulative years” in Japan and Iran — his father leaving Tehran just four days before the Iranian revolution in 1979 — before coming to the U.S. to study at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, graduating from Pitzer College with honors from the Pomona College Theatre Department.

Over the past nearly three decades, Gluck has been involved in film production, ranging from advertising agency producer, to commercial director and then assistant director to noted filmmakers such as Ridley Scott and Robert Zemeckis.

He’s been an assistant director on such blockbusters as “Contact,” “Remember the Titans,” “Transformers,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,“ “Black Rain,” “Mr. Baseball” and “Rising Sun,” before making his directorial debut with “Sideways” in 2009, a Japanese adaptation of the popular American wine-oriented film.

A veteran of directing several segments or units of feature films, “Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara” (2015) — a feature film based on the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who defied government orders and issued transit visas to save the lives of 6,000 Jewish refugees — is the second film that he has solely helmed as director.

From his base in Los Angeles, Gluck reflects upon his experience, and how the story of Sugihara’s heroic compassion shows that “every person” is capable of making a decision “that can make a tremendous difference to the lives of many other people” in this e-mail interview.

Nichi Bei Weekly: You were born in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan. Can you describe your upbringing?

Cellin Gluck: When I was born in Wakayama, I believe we were one of only two American families in the entire prefecture. At home, for the most part, our parents spoke to us in English and my brother and I answered in Japanese and went to a local Japanese kindergarten. Though we did live in a “western” house with beds, we took our shoes off at the door.

NBW: Did you grow up relating to other Japanese Americans?

CG: I grew up in Japan as a foreigner, a “gaijin,” and never considered myself nothing more than simply American. I never really knew I was Asian until I came to college in the U.S.

NBW: How did you first get involved with “Persona Non Grata”?

CG: I read a book called “The Fugu Plan” by Rabbi (Marvin) Tokayer, given to me by my friend Cerise Fukuji, and came across the name Sugihara and my curiosity as well as admiration for the man grew.

I co-wrote as well as co-directed a film called “Oba, The Last Samurai” about the U.S. invasion of Saipan and became friends with Toshiaki Karasawa, the actor who portrays Sugihara in my film. We were working on several scripts when he was tapped to play Sugihara by NTV Films, the same studio as Oba, and he insisted that I direct the film and the rest is history…

Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. photo courtesy of Visas For Life Foundation

Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara. photo courtesy of Visas For Life Foundation

NBW: When did you first hear about Chiune Sugihara, and how did his act of compassion move you?

CG: I’d always heard about the “Schindler of Japan” but never really associated his name to his deeds until I read “The Fugu Plan.” We weren’t taught about him growing up in Japan. Being of mixed Jewish and Japanese heritage, I was immediately drawn to his story.

NBW: Why do you think the Sugihara story is so important?

CG: I believe the Sugihara story is important because it shows that every person is capable of making a decision that can make a tremendous difference to the lives of many other people. No matter the race or nationality or even the circumstance, his story shows how we can overcome tremendous obstacles when we do what we believe to be right.

NBW: Feature films sometimes require dramatization to make a film more engaging. How much creative license was used for effect?

CG: The basic story is based on or inspired by true events, some of the names and characters have been “dramatized’ and some are amalgams of several people or incidents. Overall, we set out to tell as much of the story of the man and the world around him as we could and hope that you will feel we succeeded.

NBW: “Persona Non Grata” is a joint Japan / Poland film. What type of challenges did that present?

CG: No real challenges except for the daily linguistic and cultural differences you normally find in any international venture. Without sounding too grand, film is an international language and most of our tools and actions have the same name but most importantly, are used or done for the same reasons. It’s not that difficult to work as a team when each part of the greater whole knows what it must do to achieve the same goal …

NBW: You’ve worked as an assistant director on several major films, such as “Transformers” and “Godzilla.” Yet the first two films that you’ve directed are foreign films. Does that speak more to the difficulty of getting Hollywood projects, or is that fully by choice?

CG: I am fortunate to have been born and raised in Japan and speaking the language have somehow found a niche in being the English-speaking guy to go to for what might be considered “foreign” topics (if not films) made for their market. Just because you’re an assistant director in the U.S. does not necessarily mean that you will become director. In fact in most cases it’s quite the opposite. Everyone finds themselves on their own path to be recognized and mine happened to come in the way of Japan. I hope now that I have a film that the audience in America can somehow identify with, it will have a positive effect on getting work here at home.

NBW: What do you hope the viewer takes away from the film?

CG: The one thing I would definitely like the viewer to take away is the feeling that one person, every person, can make a difference and that nothing can stop you if you truly believe in what you are doing and particularly if it is the right thing to do, you will succeed. If nothing else, if we’ve managed to make a film that will make you think, then I believe that we’ve succeeded in what we set out to do.

The Nichi Bei Foundation presents “Persona Non Grata: The Story of Chiune Sugihara,” starring Toshiaki Karasawa and Koyuki, Saturday, Sept. 10 at New People Cinema, 1746 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown. A limited number of tickets remain for the 1:30 p.m. screening and the 5 p.m. Benefit Screening — the latter featuring a discussion with director Gluck and Sugihara’s granddaughter Madoka Sugihara from Japan, a reception and entertainment by the Murasaki Ensemble Trio. For more info, visit www.nichibei.org/persona-non-grata.

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