There is something marvelous that makes a firm impression on the audience, about Playwright, Kimber Lee’s “Tokyo Fish Story”, that just opened last week at Theatreworks (www.theatreworks.org), at Lucie Stern Theater. Kudos to veteran Casting Director, Leslie Martinson, for absolutely all superb cast, with Linden Tailor, James Seol, Francis Jue, Arthur Keng and Nicole Javier.
Directed by Kirsten Brandt, the play captures the essence of Japanese culture where Zen philosophy interweaves with life and it highlights respect for the elderly, for rituals and traditions; and emerging conflict between generations. Story is the not the chief focus in the play, but here’s how it goes. Sushi Master Koji (Francis Jue) operated Tokyo sushi bar, where his guests would be treated to absolutely the best sushi, made with the finest fish. Koji’s life is in the past. He ruminates about the love of his life, he prefers to forgo profit rather than compromise on quality, strictly adheres to the rules of hierarchy and gender, and demands that his protege must serve for a set period of time before he can advance to the master chef level. To the fish that is too young to go in the sushi, he says, “you are too young and scrawny, you have not life experiences” and to the flowing stream, he says, “in some ways, I feel we flow backwards these days”.
Koji’s protege, Takashi (James Seol) is 39. He understands that his mentor is out of touch with the current reality. But Takashi belongs to the generation that was taught to respect the elders and their rituals, and to avoid conflict. Nobu (Linden Tailor) on the other hand, is a brash young millennial who has grown up in the dynamic world of technology and hip-hop music; a world where marketing is at least as important a business strategy as the quality of the product, if not more. When Takashi refuses to press Koji for master chef level, Nobu tells him, “be a freaking fool in the time of your own demise”. A young woman, Ama (Nicole Javier), is not only looking to put her own mark in the hierarchical world of sushi chefs, but she has the spunk and her own brand of badass charm to break apart all gender stereotypes as well.
Japanese culture is seeped in tradition and Japanese rituals are awe-inspiringly precise and artistic, whether it is about near perfect sweeping of the rock garden to imitate the essence of nature to inspire meditation, or (ocha) the choreographic ritual of preparing and serving tea, or washing hands for purification (performing misogi), or the precise art of preparing and decorating sushi or the precision and care that goes into tying the apron. In the play, a very talented cast shines a light on the subtle and heart rending struggle in the Japanese society to strike a balance between preserving the rituals and adapting to the changing world, between compassionate reticence and forthrightness. It is a must-see play of this theater season in the bay area.