The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 15, 2013

Oscar-winning filmmaker visits MSU

Chris Tashima explores cultural themes in his movies

By Amanda Dyslin
adyslin@mankatofreepress.com

---- — 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.

Tashima said he was intrigued by Sugihara's willingness to look at the hundreds of refugees showing up at his door as individuals whom he wanted to help more than he wanted to obey his government. The blatant actions of defiance don't coincide with Japanese culture, he said.

“(It's) a really interesting cultural illustration,” he said. “It's very anti-Japanese in any typical sense … which makes him the perfect person at the right place at the right time. I find him just a fascinating individual.”

Tashima also screened his 2003 half-hour TV special for PBS, a film called “Day of Independence.” The film was nominated for a regional Emmy Award from the San Francisco/Northern California Chapter in the category of Historical/Cultural-Program/Special.

Based on Toyama's father's experience, the film follows a young baseball player sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He and other baseball players started playing games in the camp, which “symbolically showed they are American,” Tashima said.

“Baseball was a big thing for the Japanese-American community pre-war,” he said.

Referring to the themes of racial injustice and conflict in his work and in his life experiences, Tashima said keeping the dialogue open is the best way to cause change.

Tashima's visit was sponsored by the Department of Geography as part of MSU's Diversity and International Education Week.

“I've been asked several times, 'How did you get this guy?'” said Don Friend, geography professor.

Friend has known Tashima since the sixth grade, he said. They hadn't spoken since eighth grade until Tashima popped up on Facebook promoting a film, and the two connected online, eventually resulting in Tashima's visit to campus.

Friend said MSU was lucky to welcome Tashima to speak on his work and on themes of diversity.