Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

tokyo fish story
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Francis Jue, Linden Tailor, and James Seol
Photo by Kevin Berne
Audiences may soon forget the "story," but the visual memories of Kimber Lee's tokyo fish story as produced in its Northern California premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley may well last a lifetime. An old Japanese man biking with meditative strokes high in a red-sunned sky, a young man in white aprons gracefully brushing sheets of nori over a lit hibachi while another washes rice as if it were a baby, the same young man massaging an octopus as if kneading dough—these are just some of the scenes of a play that is as much an extended metaphor as it is a plotline, as much mime as it is dialogue, and as much a kind of spiritual, traditional dance among its players as it is an actual, everyday acting out of their lives. Clashing dichotomies gently war in this ballet of words and pictures as generations-old patterns and rules come up against new ideas and mores, as deep honor to a parent holds back inner drives to seek one's one creative path, and haunting regrets of the past search for a sense of peace and reconciliation.

In a run-down, passed-over section of present-day Tokyo sits a small, family-run sushi restaurant whose time seems to be running out as quickly as its mostly older patrons are dying out. Ruling both kitchen and dining room with an iron hand and an eye to strict traditions is the elderly Koji, a sushi shokunin, or master artisan in the creation and presentation of sushi. Working by his side but still in his shadow is his almost-forty-year-old son Takashi, who is the artistic architect of new sushi creations that he dare not—out of combined respect and fear—share with his father. Egging him on to get with the times and to fight back against the winning competition of a flashy, local chain sushi shop with lines out the door is the hip-hop-loving, Star-Wars-worshipping Nobu, a Japanese junior sous-chef who is also dying to get his chance with a knife behind the sushi counter. Into this mix bursts Ama, a young, brash woman who is determined—against all odds and lots of initial "no's"—to break down sexual prejudices against female sushi chefs and to learn the art of cutting, rolling, and shaping delectable tastes from the master himself.

Longtime beloved TheatreWorks and Broadway veteran Frances Jue brings reverent discipline to Koji. With only the raising of an eyebrow, his Koji sends shudders among the kitchen's workers; and with a barely audible "humph," he communicates volumes. His daily, solitude bike trips to the fish market have a sense of holiness to them, as his his meticulous, ritual-like examination of each potential purchase leads him to reject fish too young for his sushi counter. More comfortable talking to the water at the shoreline than with his own son in the kitchen, Koji puzzles, "Where did all the fish go?" and confides to the lapping waves, "We flow backward these days" as he becomes more confused about his own place in the changing world around him. Memories of a wife long left him (for reasons we never really understand but can only hypothesize) become more and more a part of his own created reality of a young woman in elegant, ocean-blue dress who increasingly joins him in his senility. Sudden, raised-voice outbursts can at any time erupt from his impatience with Nobu's loud music or from his intolerance of the "I Am Sushi" chain restaurant with its "goddamn Happy Meals." Frances Jue's performance of Koji is at its heart a meditative, beautiful portrait of a man who is coming to terms with his own mortality and generational duty to pass the baton. In a moving and calm voice, Koji looks at his son's sushi knife and says, "You must now do what you can with what you have."

James Seol is the serious-faced Takashi who strives to honor his father with a daily regime and adherence to the routines taught him over the past twenty years. There is a visible tension in Takashi's rigid shoulders as he walks a tightrope of respecting his father's wishes and of understanding all-too-well Nobu's observation that "you erase yourself just to make room for him" (i.e., Koji). But when occasionally giving into Nobu's ongoing antics and taunts, Mr. Seol can also for a moment show playful sparkle in Takashi's deep, black eyes and a silly grin on his otherwise tightly set lips.

Energy bursts from Nobu like an ongoing string of lit firecrackers as he continually mixes his practiced movements of rinsing, brushing, and massaging with sudden break-outs of hip-hop dance moves, sung lyrics from America's current top hits, and spoken lines from his most-favorite Star Wars scenes. For all his youthful silliness and loud-colored sneakers, Nobu is a sage beyond his years and appearance. Between calling Takashi "my dude" and "my brother," he points out to him, "You and that old dude have some serious issues" and warns, "Something has to happen around here ... Every living thing has to change or they die." As Nobu, Linden Tailor is a gem who brings both welcome fun and progression of storyline to the play.

Helping round out the talented ensemble is Nicole Javier as Ama (as well as the mysterious woman in blue of Koji's dreams). As Ama, Ms. Javier displays persistence and purpose of her own desires while fully embracing with knowing looks and caring eyes the respect and reverence due to the honored Koji. Also as an able cast member, Arthur Keng steps into a variety of walk-on roles such as a somewhat sleazy, encroaching competitor named Daisuke and several ridiculous applicants for kitchen help (including a guy who refuses to get his hands wet). It is as Oishi, a bumbling clown of a hire who sends metal bowls flying and his torso falling, that is particularly the star role for Mr. Keng.

As artfully directed by Kirsten Brandt, silence often plays as big a part as spoken dialogue in this production. Understanding the rising and ebbing waves of motions and movements of a sushi kitchen becomes an essential part of comprehending the play itself. All is aided by the smooth entrances and exits of Wilson Chin's set pieces that become almost life-like in choreographed sequences as they magically form doorways, kitchen corners and counters, and restaurant decorum. Sound and lighting designs by Jeff Mockus and Dawn Chiang accentuate the ever-present, life-offering water surrounding this island country. And paramount to the authenticity of the sushi-making sequences before us is the consultation clearly provided by a real-life master, Chef Toshio Sakuma.

Walking out of the theatre, not all questions arising in our minds have been answered by Ms. Lee's script. Why did Koji's wife really leave him? Is that guilt behind his apparent regret? What is going on inside Takashi's stern countenance, and who is he really? And is that a spark of attraction between Takashi and Ama, or is it just imagination playing tricks? But in the end, these are only somewhat interesting queries that really do not need pursuing any further in order to relish a beautifully orchestrated yet oft-told story of one generation stepping aside for another's new ideas. Kirsten Brandt, this cast, and the TheatreWorks team have painted a tokyo fish story picture that will stay embedded in memory for a long time.

tokyo fish story continues through April 3, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Stage of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 65-463-1960 Monday - Friday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, noon - 6 p.m.