The Story Behind the Photo: "tokyo fish story"

Tania Thompson
 | Jan 14, 2021
tokyo fish story
Jully Lee, Lawrence Kao, Sab Shimono and Ryun Yu in tokyo fish story (2015) by Kimber Lee. Photo by Debora Robinson.

About tokyo fish story

Generations, gender and tradition collide in tokyo fish story, a new play by Kimber Lee, with its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. Koji is a sushi master whose fine, traditional sushi restaurant is on the decline at the same time the new sushi place down the street packs them in. A quiet play that has a big heart, a touch of poetry, a hint of mystery—and just the right amount of enticing comedy.

Director Bart DeLorenzo helmed Kimber Lee’s tokyo fish story (2015), which unfolded on the Julianne Argyros Stage. The story’s recipe appealed to him: food, combined with a subtle yet engagingly universal drama about people who suppress emotions for the sake of tradition. He remembers fondly the choreography needed for sushi-making scenes [one is featured above].

What moment does this depict?

Not many plays are about food. This photo is from the first dinner service in tokyo fish story, the moment when we see for ourselves the kind of sushi mastery that chef Koji is capable of. Kimber was inspired to write this play by the wonderfu documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and, although we can’t taste, the film allows us to see in extraordinary close-up the beauty and lusciousness of the dishes. Theatre as an art form isn’t great at depicting flavor or showing the close details of an object, so we knew we had to fashion a beautiful metaphor. Kimber’s script says, “The sushi bar is lit like a stage,” so we pursued this thought to perform the sushi preparation as an elaborate, choreographed dance.

How did you work to make this moment happen?

We all had gone on a field trip to James Hamamori’s delicious restaurant to observe and learn from him and his generous sushi-makers. Then, we devoted a whole day of rehearsal to the creation and refinement of our sequence. SCR provided us with all the working tools of a real sushi bar and we began with the actors playing freely with the props, knowing that, unlike the film, we would never see any actual food. I watched the improvisations for interesting gestures or defining sounds. We decided which moves were the most compelling and, over many trials, gave the piece a momentum that we liked. While we had simultaneously created a natural live percussive score, our sound designer John Zalewski watched and later built a subtle complementary orchestration. Then Elizabeth Harper lit it like theatre, as you can see above.

What’s the power about this moment?

The sequence gave a holy hush to the act of sushi preparation and I think it conveyed the seriousness and devotion of Koji’s artistry. I was raised Catholic and you can perhaps see traces of the mass in this configuration. Tradition, ritual. And, as the play moved forward and we later watched Takashi, Koji’s son, prepare dinner, we were able to see how the future generations might respectfully progress the customs of the past.

Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

If you look closely, Sab Shimono who played Koji, hasn’t tied his apron the way chefs typically do. This is a very special time-consuming knot that Sab himself insisted on, a knot that itself comes out of a tradition and a history. Sab said that he was taught the knot by Mako when they performed together on Broadway in Pacific Overtures in 1976. This passing on reflects the spirit of Kimber’s play.