Sushi Wa Jinsei. Sushi Is Life … in Kimber Lee’s “slice-of-sushi” dramedy tokyo fish story, now getting its World Premiere at South Coast Repertory, and like the raw-fish-&-steamed-rice confections created by master chef protagonist Koji, Lee’s latest is one tangy treat.
Koji (Sab Shimono) has been doing his sushi chef thing for the past thirty-five years, about twenty of them with the 40ish Takashi (Ryun Yu) as his assistant …. but don’t ever expect to see sous chef Takashi creating his own menu, or even adding his own touches to Koji’s. Since this is elders-respecting Japan and not the me-first U.S.A., the younger man knows his place, even if this means hiding his own unique gifts.
As we will soon discover, things aren’t going all that well at Sushi Koji of late. There’s a Help Wanted sign in the window, the result of the latest all-night bender from kitchen worker Oishi (Eddie Mui in the first of half-a-dozen cameos). Koji’s dingy little eatery hasn’t had a full kitchen staff in nearly three years now. Today alone, a bunch of cancelations means Sushi Koji is closed for lunch. And as for the surrounding neighborhood shops, one by one they have been shutting their doors.
Down the street, however, business is booming at chain restaurant Boku Wa Sushi, whose master chef learned from the best (three guesses as to who), then added some Western-style ingenuity: two appetizers, a beverage, and a small dessert included in the menu at no extra charge.
At Sushi Koji, however, tradition trumps everything else. That’s why you’ll never ever see a female sushi chef there. (It’s said that women’s hands are “too warm.”) That’s why you’ll never see Takashi stepping in for Koji, despite his two decades of experience minus a year spent in America. That’s why, no matter how mouth-watering Takashi’s very own “flower sushi” might be, he refuses to even show it to Koji, let alone suggest that it be added to the menu.
All of which drives sassy 29-year-old apprentice Nobu (Lawrence Kao) more that a little bit crazy, the Star Wars-&-hip-hop-obsessed whippersnapper being the only one at Sushi Koji who can see Takashi’s potential, a potential Takashi refuses to even consider acknowledging.
With drunk-and-disorderly Oishi gone for good, a replacement must be found asap. Toru (Mui) might be just the man, if he didn’t mind getting his hands wet, if his skin weren’t sensitive to hot and cold, if he weren’t allergic to latex, etc. etc. etc. Yuji (Mui) might fit the bill if his only experience weren’t “at my mom’s, at home, with my mom at home,” if only he didn’t faint whenever startled. Even Punk chick Ama Miyuki (Jully Lee) might be perfect if …
Well, as I said before, tradition trumps everything else at Sushi Koji, and so it’s Yuji who gets the job, though this is not the last we’ll see of Ama, who happens to look exactly like the young woman whose image has been haunting Koji of late, a silent figure with a long black braid hanging down her back.
Visions of a mystery woman aren’t the only sign than age may finally have caught up with the 70something master chef. He’s been staring deep into the ocean these past days, soliloquizing with the fishes, and reminiscing about a certain someone who once left him “a glistening edible moment, like a sad jewel fallen from her hair for only me to find.”
To reveal anything more about what Korean-American playwright Lee has up her sleeve would be to spoil the many surprises she still has in store.
Were tokyo fish story a movie, we’d likely be watching it in Japanese, with English subtitles. As a play, it can be performed in unaccented American English, allowing us to “hear” it as a Japanese speaker would his or her own language, which makes its characters seem far less foreign, to its benefit.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine a more entertaining, informative crash course in just how different contemporary Japanese culture is from our own than tokyo fish story, and with Bart DeLorenzo bringing the same magical, mystical touch to Lee’s latest that he did to Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, South Coast Repertory’s Winter season-closer is an all-around winner.
The performances DeLorenzo has elicited from his pitch-perfect cast could not be more spot-on.
Yu’s stony-faced Takashi may appear at first to be the “silent inscrutable Asian man” that Nobu so impudently describes, but little by little the Dramatic Performance Of The Year Scenie winner (for East West Players’ Dawn’s Light: The Journey Of Gordon Hirabayashi) lets us know the depth of the sushi chef’s still waters.
tokyo fish story reunites Kao with Fast Company director DeLorenzo, and he is even more infectiously winning here as Japan’s cheekiest, hip-hoppingest Star Wars fanatic ever.
Playwright Lee makes us wait nearly two-thirds into tokyo fish story for actress Lee to finally get her storyline, but her energizing arrival at Sushi Koji is worth waiting for, and like both Yu and Kao, what you see (in Lee’s case, a feisty, take-no-prisoners Tokyoite) merely scratches the surface of what lies beneath.
All three actors not only deliver the dramatic-comedic goods, but reveal themselves to be quite proficient with the sushi knife (and the entire sushi-making process) as well.
The effervescent Mui walks away with Most Versatile Player for creating six of the most distinctly indelible performances you’ll see all year, from Mama’s boy to effete snob to cool calculating businessman … and more.
Last but not least, venerable Asian-American groundbreaker Shimono brings talents hone over half-century of acting credits to the role of Koji, a performance rich in nuance and a lifetime of dedication to craft, whether that of actor or (in tokyo fish story) of sushi master.
tokyo fish story looks quite spectacular indeed with scenic designer Neil Patel’s imaginative, multi-level set not only plunging us into the world of Sushi Koji but making us feel surrounded by the very ocean itself, particularly as aided and abetted by John Zalewski’s exquisitely layered sound design and Jason H. Thompson’s dreamlike projection design. Elizabeth Harper’s lighting design is equally gorgeous as are Christina Haatainen-Jones’s character-appropriate costumes.
Jerry Patch is dramaturg. Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager and Joshua Marchesi production manager. Casting of this superb, L.A.-based ensemble is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Amber Caras is production assistant.
Jesse Hiraki receives program credit as sushi consultant, an assignment you don’t see every day, and one reflected in some magical sushi making.
Like Chinglish and Fast Company before it, tokyo fish story is the kind of Asian-American play you might expect to be seeing at East West Players. That all three plays have been programmed by a mainstream theater reflects South Coast Repertory’s commitment to diversity in both storytelling and casting and insures a far broader audience than would be the case in a “specialty” theater.
First and foremost, however, Kimber Lee’s tokyo fish story is captivating, thought-provoking theater, regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, or culture. As any of its cast of characters might put it were we hearing them in their native Japanese, it is totemo oishii desu. Very delicious indeed.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
March 15, 2015
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR