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Life and Arts

Musical centering on plights of comfort women, a topic with local significance, opens in Los Angeles

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Female cast members portray victims of sex slavery during World War II in “Comfort Women: A New Musical.”
(Courtesy of Jeff Yeon, French Q Studio)

A new musical telling the story of women who were held as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II opened Thursday in downtown Los Angeles.

It’s a topic that resonates locally because a statue in Glendale’s Central Park honors the victims, known as comfort women.

The statue depicts a young woman in traditional Korean dress sitting next to an empty chair. Last month, Glendale police said someone smeared an unknown brown, sticky substance on the the statue. Several flower pots around the memorial were shattered.

Tahnee Lightfoot, a Glendale Police Department spokeswoman, said it wasn’t the first time the statue had been targeted by vandals, although a specific number of incidents was unavailable.

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Dimo Hyun Jun Kim, a native of Seoul, South Korea who lives in New York City, is the director and playwright of the L.A. show called “Comfort Women: A New Musical.” His New York City-based production company, Dimo Kim Musical Theatre Factory, produced the show and is dedicated to featuring Asian actors and actresses onstage.

While making a musical about such a controversial and emotional issue may seem unusual, Kim points out that he only makes musicals.

“If I were a book writer, I may write a book about this. If I were a filmmaker, I may make a film about this,” he said.

Kim recalled that in 2012, the Japanese government began a campaign to dishonor comfort women’s stories, calling them prostitutes who went with the Japanese soldiers willingly.

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“They were trying to erase their histories,” Kim said.

That was his impetus to look into the issue.

The show has been produced twice before, both times Off-Broadway in New York City, said Kim, who has a long list of other theatrical credits. The L.A. production will run through Aug. 25.

The issue was so controversial that when Kim approached several Korean musicians to write music for the initial production in 2015, they all turned him down.

“They were like, ‘No, it’s too sensitive. It’s dangerous,” he said.

He then approached a friend who is Jewish, Bryan Michaels, who said he would write the music and lyrics. However, Kim still wanted an Asian sound in the production, so South Korean composer Taeho Park was brought on board to co-write the score.

Kim said he doesn’t have a direct personal connection with the comfort-women’s plights, but when he started working on the project, he recalled his grandmother had told him about Japanese soldiers coming to her village when she was a child during World War II and taking away teenage girls.

The family members of his grandmother’s teenage cousins were fearful, so they put ash on the girls’ faces and hid them in the basement to keep them safe.

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As he began working on the musical, his grandmother reminded him that her experience was about young women being taken as sex slaves, women who are now known as comfort women.

When Kim was in a play-writing class in New York City, he proposed writing a short scene about comfort women, and he was surprised that no one in the class knew about the issue or its history.

“I was really shocked … When I was 16 and 15, I learned everything about the Holocaust in school in Korea,” he said.

“It’s a story that has to be told,” he added.

In Glendale, the statue memorializing comfort women was installed in 2013. The 1,100-pound metal memorial represents an estimated 200,000 women from countries including Korea, China, the Philippines and Indonesia who were forced into sex slavery during World War II.

The Korean Sister City Assn. designed and paid for the memorial. Glendale is sister cities with two South Korean towns, Goseong and Gimpo.

In 2014, a Glendale resident named Michiko Gingery and GAHT-US Corp., a group that opposes recognition of comfort women, filed a lawsuit that sought the removal of the statue, arguing, in part, that Glendale overstepped its bounds and infringed on the United States’ ability to conduct foreign affairs.

The suit was rejected by a U.S. District Court, and a judge said the city broke no laws and the plaintiffs had no standing. The decision was upheld again in 2016 at the appellate level and, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

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Regarding the comfort-women musical, Kim said he doesn’t want it to be about the political issues associated with comfort women.

“It’s about the victims,” he said.

“Comfort Woman: A New Musical” is being presented at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://bit.ly/33zeGfD.

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