BWW Reviews: South Coast Rep Serves Up World Premiere of TOKYO FISH STORY
In playwright Kimber Lee's hushed yet absorbing sushi-making drama TOKYO FISH STORY---now having its World Premiere production at Costa Mesa's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory through March 29---centuries of painstaking tradition are... well, rapidly showing its age against the progress of modern times. Can both harmoniously co-exist?
The play is set in present day contemporary Tokyo, Japan, where we are introduced to Koji (played by the terrific Sab Shimono) a highly-respected veteran sushi master who owns Koji Sushi, a locally famous institution that has spent the past few decades as a renowned landmark of artistically-prepared sushi.
A gruff, demanding curmudgeon who only utters very few words (sometimes he just grunts disapprovingly and all comply), Koji knows (and often gets) exactly what he wants---well, at least when it comes to his restaurant. Koji's strict adherence to tradition and his own super-high standards are the ruling commandments of his livelihood, which have been applied to everything from how he runs his business to how his apprentices cook the rice, how the fish is selected and prepared, and, yes, even down to who gets to work in his kitchen.
But like all good things that refuse to change with the times, Koji Sushi is in trouble: with both the quality of available fish and the quality of customer standards at a steep decline, the business just cannot sustain the kind of old-world tradition that Koji is so used to upholding. Koji is angry, naturally, that most "young" people nowadays are not cultured enough to distinguish good sushi from bad (at one point, the ornery old man even scolds the tuna itself at the fish market for not being mature enough and having "life experience" to be served at his establishment).
Meanwhile, down the street, a hip, new conveyor-belt-delivered sushi joint has just opened and has a long queue of eager customers salivating out the door.
Despite this, though, Koji stubbornly insists his way is still the only way. Thus, even at his advanced age, Koji still insists on being the person who rises with the dawn to select and purchase the very fish they use---sloooowly pedaling his squeaky bike up the hill to and from the fish market himself while his apprentice minions prepare that day's offerings back at the restaurant.
His specific standards are so set in stone that things at the restaurant must only be done a certain way---the same way it has always been done---much to the quiet frustration of his most trusted protégé Takashi (Ryun Yu). A seemingly even-keeled, hardworking guy in his late 30's, Takashi has worked under Koji for almost twenty years of his life---well, except for that one year when he went abroad to the U.S. for "mysterious" reasons.
Though clearly a wünderkind with the art of sushi himself, Takashi reveres and respects Koji so vigorously that he forces himself to squelch his own talents and ideas, fearful of offending his rather stern boss---even as the restaurant's receipts continue to decline. While trying to live up to Koji's standards, he must also deal with being told to make do with whatever seafood Koji brings back from the market or what is left in the walk-in.
All of this is even troubling for the other hardworking young apprentice in the kitchen, the hip-hop music and Star Wars-loving Nobu (scene-stealing Lawrence Kao), who recognizes Takashi's own masterful ways and continuously eggs him on to finally rise to the occasion. Nobu knows that Takashi not only has the tenacity and training---he also has an in-born talent that only a few true sushi masters possess.
Later, a troubling seaside chance encounter with an emotionally-distraught Koji brings young Ama (Jully Lee) back to the restaurant where she was earlier turned down for a job as another kitchen apprentice simply because of her gender. With the restaurant's easily-spooked new hire (the hilarious Eddie Mui) out of commission, Ama is recruited to help out, even though she herself just got hired at the new sushi place down the street. And, well, look at that... do we detect some romantic sparks there?
Soon, submerged secrets make their way to the surface, alleviating pressures for some, while creating opportunities for healing and progress for others.
Directed with poetic beauty by Bart DeLorenzo, TOKYO FISH STORY, is a subtle yet engagingly universal drama about people who suppress real emotions for the sake of tradition and order. While the fight between old-world tradition and savvy modernity isn't exactly new, Lee's play provides a fresh setting for this battle that is culturally rich with century-spanning customs and yet very much new-century hip---making it quite easy for either side to have valid strength in the argument.
But beyond that, the play is also a 90-minute-long celebration of the intricate art of sushi-making and the calm, humble geniuses that put these delicious concoctions together (the play allocates a lot of time showing the precise procedures and methods of sushi preparation about as much as a cooking demo program on TV). While not quite a perfect piece in its current incarnation, the play as it now exists on SCR's stage is an above-average, excellent first-pass of what certainly has the makings of an even fuller, richer drama after some character tinkering and perhaps narrative expansion.
Much like its characters and the very art of sushi-making itself, the play unfolds in a quiet, gentle whisper of small sounds and small gestures, yet is clearly bubbling with pent-up emotions that dare not explode too violently for all to see. It's certainly an understandable choice for a play that relies heavily on implied subtext and have lead characters that try to say what they need to say in as few words as possible. For me, the play, more than anything, really intrigued me enough to want to learn more about these fascinating men and their 20-year history working of working together.
Nobu, on the other hand, the play's most excitable and chatty character is also its most endearing---an observant, expressive young man that can see the value of good, honest work while still able to see life with optimism and good-natured humor. While a fan of innovation and sushi trickery (and modern pop culture, it seems), Nobu also seems to have an admiration for traditional methods in his quest to please his mentors. He's a wonderful counter-point to both Koji and Takashi, but also to the politically-charged Ama and the various ne'er do wells (all played by Mui) that try to be the other kitchen worker at Koji Sushi. As it stands, Nobu feels to be the most fully-realized of all the play's characters, likely because he's the only person that can see right through everyone around him. Quite a gift!
Of course, that's helped along by a wonderful performance from Kao, who gets blessed with many of the play's witty and quite funny one-liners. But truthfully, the entire cast features some rather beautifully layered, nuanced performances, particularly from Shimono and Yu. Jully Lee, the cast's lone female cast member is an awesome rocker-chic ball-buster one moment and an ethereal vision the next. And kudos to Mui for his valiant attempt at individually different characters throughout the play, some even more hilarious than the next.
To create its environment, Jason H. Thompson has designed projections that are beautiful mashups of traditional woodcut pressed illustrations that have been faintly animated with modern colors and patterns. Neil Patel's minimalist scenic design reiterate the play's subtleties while Elizabeth Harper's lighting design add appropriate mood and drama. While I cannot testify to the taste of the sushi being created so meticulously onstage, the authenticity of its labor seems legit from where I was sitting, perhaps due to the play's use of a sushi consultant, Jesse Hiraki.
Speaking from personal experience, Asian cultures have tendencies toward being humble and quiet and not to be too boastful of one's feelings or success---at least, not verbally. In that sense, I recognized a lot of myself and my father's interactions in my youth in the behavior and interactions between Koji and Takashi---particularly Takashi's deep-seeded urges to show Koji something new and great while at the same time respecting his boss and mentor's long-proven wealth of experience and knowledge.
The play moves along much like Koji's and Takashi's relationship: quiet, cautiously glacial, a little secretive, and full of assumptions and non-verbal cues.
Perhaps it's part of the culture---that emotions are not necessarily so outwardly displayed, but is instead implied, and shown much more frequently in the form of reverent subjugation and courteous respect. That mood is carried throughout TOKYO FISH STORY and becomes its primary raison d'être. Modern times may have certainly eased this a bit as years pass and as Western ideologies, pop culture, and mannerisms have permeated these shores, so, in that sense, it's heartwarming to see that---SPOILER ALERT---even someone as stubborn and ornery as Koji can be convinced to have an open mind... and even crack a smile.
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Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.
Performances of the World Premiere production of tokyo fish story continue at South Coast Repertory through March 29, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.