All dressed up, but this 'fish story' goes nowhere

Kimber Lee's new play, 'tokyo fish story,' is having its world premiere at South Coast Repertory

There are plenty of fish in the sea, we console ourselves when loved ones escape our nets. But in Kimber Lee’s new play, “tokyo fish story,” having its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, the truth of this old proverb is in doubt.

Koji (Sab Shimono) is a shokunin, or sushi master, revered at Koji Sushi, his famous Tokyo restaurant, as well as at the fish market he visits every morning on his bicycle. (We see him slowly pedaling there and then back again, up and down the hill, his wheels hypnotically squeaking.)

A fragile, white-haired figure of few words, he embodies such dominion that a quirk of his eyebrow can send a shock wave through his realm.

“Too young,” Koji castigates a vendor after inspecting the day’s catch. He even reproaches the tuna itself: “You have had no life experience.”

He has the same opinion of his lead apprentice, 39-year-old Takashi (Ryan Yun), who has been learning his exacting standards for 20 years.

But the ocean no longer provides enough fish, and, as demonstrated by a string of unimpressive job applicants (all played by Eddie Mui), the youth of Japan have lost their grit. Customers are falling off, while a flashy new sushi chain down the street has lines around the block.

All signs point to one conclusion: Koji’s way of life is dying. He must change with the times or die along with it.

We’ve seen this story so many times before, if in different settings, that we immediately start running down a mental checklist. Where’s the young renegade destined to shake things up? That’s Takashi, who presents a face of stoic obedience while furtively creating avant-garde pieces of sushi that are, to judge by the expressions of those who taste them, transcendentally delicious.

He needs a brash, gutsy champion to push him past his scruples: That’s Nobu (the adorable Lawrence Kao), a younger apprentice who speaks in affected hip-hop slang but is nonetheless selflessly committed to clearing the way for his hero.

There’s also a love interest, pink-haired Ama (Jully Lee), who chooses this opportune time and place to launch her attack on the male-dominated sushi culture.  And an unexpected crisis unearths past tragedies, discloses hidden relationships and opens the door to change.

Lee delivers these predictable plot devices at such a desultory, even grudging pace that it is clear that the story line is not her chief interest here. She’s really in love with the rituals of the sushi chef. (A sushi consultant is listed on the production staff, and the program includes a sushi glossary.)

We spend long mornings with the apprentices, watching them wash rice, massage octopus and brush sheets of nori across a hibachi as they exchange flat, often banal bits of dialogue that rely heavily on subtext.

In the most memorable scenes, when the chefs work behind the bar, director Bart DeLorenzo has them move in gracefully expressionistic slow motion, like surgeons or bullfighters or other practitioners of arcane, sacred rites — but their dance loses some impact the second time.

Jason H. Thompson’s stylized, woodcut-like projections of the sky and sea are as beautiful as the illustrations in a Caldecott-winning children's picture book. But immersing us in a world is not quite enough. Once we’ve gotten wet, we want to go somewhere.

“tokyo fish story,” Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends March 29. $22 and up. (714) 708-5555 or Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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