tokyo fish story Theatre Review – An Appetizing, Poetic “Fish” Tale

Koji (Sab Shimono, center) tests the food as Nobu (Lawrence Kao, left) and Takashi (Ryun Yu, right) look on

(Costa Mesa, CA) March, 2015 – Food has played an important role in cinema, cementing its presence with its cultural diversity. There was the famous delectable scene where fat Pete Clemenza taught Mike Corleone the importance of how to cook an Italian pasta/sausage dinner for an army of soldiers during a mafia war in “The Godfather.” There were the wall-to-wall mouth watering courses in “Big Night,” as well as the multitudes of sandwiches cooked in Jon Favreau’sChef.” In all these cases, the story became even more alive because of this inanimate, yet potently edible character.


South Coast Repertory’s Artistic Director Marc Masterson and Managing Director Paula Tomei have served as a primal driving force these past few years when it comes to expanding the theatre's cultural boundaries. With their latest production at the Julianne Argyros Stage, “tokyo fish story,” SCR not only transcends into theatrical excellence, but also transforms the beauty of food into an art form.

Koji (Sab Shimono, left) shares his frustrations with his friend Hirayama (Eddie Mui, left)

Sushi Master Koji (Sab Shimono) is held as a national treasure in Japan, not only to the natives, but also to tourists who value and cherish his traditional culinary creations at his restaurant, Sushi Koji.  But there is a short supply of quality fish due to overfishing, business has whittled down his staff to Koji’s sous chef Takashi (Ryun Yu)—who has been keeping his own burgeoning sushi talents a secret—and Nobu (a lively, charming and witty Lawrence Kao)—a good-hearted apprentice who keeps everyone on their toes with his hip-hop style and vocabulary using American rap and pop culture. To make matters worse, a new sushi franchise has opened a block from Koji, taking away most of his customers. With all of these factors, as well as the presence of a series of hilarious supporting male characters (all wonderfully performed by Eddie Mui) and a mysterious woman who may—or may not be—a ghost from Koji’s past, will the sushi master eventually compromise and give his pupils a chance to grow professionally and creatively with their sushi artistry, thereby saving his business in the end? 

Ama (Jully Lee, right) brings Koji (Sab Shimono, center) to Takashi (Ryun Yu, left)

The heart of this eloquent work comes from its creator, playwright Kimber Lee, who has mastered her characters’ economy of language by breaking apart some of their dialogue, and most of their monologues, into short sentences and phrases, as though she were following the literary haiku poetic form, which becomes hilarious in some cases when Kao speaks in American rap style. But in a couple of scene transitions, especially when the sushi masters create their “work” for their customers, they move and mime in powerful fluidic motions as though the audience were watching a modern Japanese No play. This purposeful slowness is a surprising contrast to Director Bart DeLorenzo’sFast Company” last year, which dealt with a Chinese family of cons. That particular production matched its title in terms of it speedy—but never rushed—pacing and hip style and projection design (which was craftily done by designer Jason H. Thompson, who also mastered the incredible mercurial design in “story.”). But DeLorenzo’s direction in “story” is nicely patient, giving the actors time to live through their characters with their actions—especially their cooking—to their dialogue and even subtle silences with each other. The most important note about this work is the audience must be focused and patient during its 90 minute run (no intermissions), paying special attention to what the characters are saying and HOW they are saying it. Lee’s literary style is very specific and the audience, will close attentiveness, can see much subtext come alive, most notably regarding the interaction between Shimono and Yu, and especially the mysterious woman that appears throughout the play (who is played with beautiful classiness by Jully Lee, who is also hilarious as Ama, a gothic punk girl that is hired on later in the play). All those moments regarding these three key characters lead to a picturesque climax that captures the overall magnificence of this work.

Koji (Sab Shimono, left) and Takashi (Ryun Yu, right) ponder their futures

Although the acting was uniformly well done by the supporting players, Shimono and Yu are the true stars of “story.” Stage, film and TV veteran Shimono radiates charismatic wisdom and heart-breaking crankiness, showing much compassion with his Koji as he goes though his spiritual journey regarding what to do with his business and ultimately his life. His Koji is a prideful man, but it’s a likable pride where he must decide whether to let the newer generation grab the reigns or not. His monologues are so quietly powerful that you could hear a pin drop because this talented actor’s presence magically grabs every audience member’s attention until he leaves the stage. His scenes with Yu show a nice teacher/pupil relationship, where each gives and takes. Yu peels many layers off of his Takashi, a man who wants to stick with tradition, but not to sacrifice his own dreams when it comes to his professional and creative evolution. With these two gifted performances, as well as the poetic direction and writing, “tokyo fish story” is a tale that can linger in the minds of Southern California audiences as though it were a divine sunset.


Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist.

tokyo fish story runs from March 8-29, 2015

South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Debora Robinson 

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