MANKATO — Chris Tashima grew up in California loving movies like “Star Wars” and “Dirty Harry,” not realizing until he was pursuing a career in filmmaking how lacking Hollywood is in roles for minorities.
“As an actor of color, a minority, you are immediately faced with that reality in Hollywood,” said Tashima during a visit to Minnesota State University this week.
That's why Tashima felt so lucky to begin his acting career in 1985 with the East West Players, an Asian-American theater organization in Los Angeles. The company provided him with work and helped shape his identity as an actor, writer and director, he said.
Tashima found that his passion in filmmaking lied in exploring his cultural identity as a Japanese-American. And the work that came of that over the past 25 years has resulted in numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for “Visas and Virtue” (1997).
“Race really is culture,” Tashima said. “And when you are having racial conflicts or anything that is a struggle, it's usually due to an ignorance and a lack of cultural understanding, awareness, knowledge, information.”
These lessons are prevalent in his work.
As part of his visit to MSU, Tashima screened two films for students and community members that deal with lesser-known events of World War II, including “Visas of Virtue.” Having directed, co-wrote and starred in the film, Tashima won the Academy Award in the Live Action Short Film category with producer Chris Donahue. (The film was adapted from a play by Tim Toyama.)
The narrative short is based on the true story of Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara, who in 1940 issued more than 2,000 travel visas to Polish and Lithuanian Jews from the consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania. Sugihara did so against the orders of the Japanese government.
Because a visa was good for an entire family, Sugihara is credited for helping 6,000 people escape the Holocaust.