By Bill Watanabe
My wife and I went to the movies this past Thanksgiving holiday. We don’t go to a lot of movies, but we both wanted to see The Imitation Game, which had just come out. If you want to see what an Academy Award-winning performance for Best Actor looks like, Benedict Cumberbatch really nailed it in his portrayal of Alan Turing, the cryptology genius who broke the Nazi secret code and literally saved millions of lives and perhaps civilization as we know it. Every once in a while you see a performance so perfect that you just know it is going to win the Oscar – and you don’t even have to see the other films or performances. I had that feeling after seeing Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry and sure enough, he was the winner. I had the same feeling after seeing The Miracle Worker – I knew it was a winner. I am stating it now – Cumberbatch will win the Oscar – and I don’t even know who else might be nominated! To be honest though, I did feel this way about Sandra Bullock and her performance in Gravity and am convinced she was given short shrift as the reason she didn’t win last year.
Before the movie began, there was the inevitable (and sometimes seemingly unending) series of upcoming film previews. One of the previews was for a movie called Unbroken, a true-life story about Louis Zamperini who was a rebellious youth, an Olympic track star, and then a WW2 hero and later a born-again Christian. While the preview was showing, I leaned over to my wife and whispered to her that Louis Zamperini had spoken at my church many many years ago.
The preview showed some scenes of Zamperini being tortured and mercilessly beaten by a sadistic Japanese prison camp warden who made it his goal to break this prized prisoner’s will. The movie is supposed to come out during the Christmas holiday so I plan to go see it. I’ve read in some reviews that this movie may also be in the running for an Oscar, including Best Picture and Best Actor (but I doubt my mind about Cumberbatch will be changed). I also read that Zamperini had died just a few months ago at the age of 97.
After the movie, on our way home, my wife and I talked a bit about The Imitation Game, and we agreed it was an excellent movie – one of the best in a while. I changed topics and started talking about Louis Zamperini. I mentioned to her that when I was a teenager at the San Fernando Valley Holiness Church (a Japanese American Christian church in Pacoima), around the year 1959, Louis Zamperini came and spoke to our youth group. Even though this was 55 years ago, I thought he was an old man back then! I can recall he talked about his Olympic experiences and he described the six weeks he floated on the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down during WW2. He also talked about how his Christian faith had helped him to achieve greater peace in his life and he encouraged all the members of my youth group to maintain physical fitness and to have Christian faith through life’s struggles.
As I drove home I thought about the gruesome scenes in the movie preview of Zamperini being tortured at the hands of Japanese soldiers. I began to marvel at the very idea that Zamperini would even come to a Japanese American church to share encouragement for us young people just a mere 14 years after the end of the war. Perhaps Zamperini still felt some ill effects and pain as a reminder of the torture he experienced and yet here he was, talking to us JA youth. As I thought about this great act of grace and love, I started to feel inspired and in awe of the breadth of the human spirit to not only be unbroken but to able to forgive and to give love to others – even others who looked like one’s former enemies and tormentors.
This is part of the Christmas story – because Louis Zamperini exemplifies the words of the angel who declared on the night Christ was born in Bethlehem, “Peace on earth and goodwill to all.” If there were more people like Louis Zamperini, there could be some real peace on earth and goodwill!
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Bill Watanabe co-founded the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles, California, and served as the LTSC‘s executive director for over 30 years. He has served on the boards of numerous local organizations, and is a highly respected member of the APA community.