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Theater Review: “tokyo fish story”

(from left) Raymond Lee appears as Nobu, Tim Chiou as Takashi, and James Saito as Koji
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

Tradition and ritual confront change and modernity in Kimber Lee’s “tokyo fish story,” playing through June 26 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.

Koji (James Saito), owner of Sushi Koji somewhere in Tokyo, has spent some 35 years going to the market every day for the fish he will serve. He is old-school, holding to the tradition and the art of sushi making.

But times have changed, and Sushi Koji is losing customers to a nearby eatery that has modified the sushi tradition by serving dessert, and even more by hiring women.

While Koji is at the market, protégé Takashi (Tim Chiou) enters the restaurant, flips on the lights and starts setting up for the day. He is washing the rice when apprentice Nobu (Raymond Lee) walks in yawning. Takashi hews to tradition like Koji, but Nobu speaks in a hip-hop cadence and almost seems more American than Japanese.

There always seems to be a staffing shortage at Sushi Koji, but when a Goth-looking girl (Tina Chilip) with experience walks in, Takashi passes her up for a mama’s boy with neither experience nor grace.

Saito’s Koji is a strict taskmaster but there is a sadness in him. This is a huge contrast with apprentice Lee’s Nobu, who bounces around like a tennis ball, but still gets the job done. Chiou’s Takashi, himself a sushi master, quietly has creative ideas, but so far has stuck with his father’s vision of what a sushi place should be.

The remarkable sound and music design of Nathan Roberts and Charles Coes (running water, the light switches, the pouring of tea) almost convinces you that these are not mimed actions but actual ones.

The question at hand is whether modernization will come to Sushi Koji in time to save it. It’s not too difficult to guess what will happen, but this play is more about culture than plot; if you can relax into this world of silence and spaces, Director May Adrales and her team will give you a feel for that culture.

Fortunately, Lee also provides engaging characters and beautiful, almost poetic language. Her fine cast and crew do the rest.

The details

“tokyo fish story” plays through June 26, 2016 at  The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org