Playwright Kirk Shimano weaves tales of old Japan with online dating

"Tales of Old Japan" promo art from Pork Filled Players.

“Tales of Old Japan” promo art from Pork Filled Players.

Mukashi Mukashi, the Japanese opening phrase for fairy tales, were the first words uttered in a Thursday reading for Kirk Shimano’s play, “Online Dating Tales of Old Japan” held by Pork-Filled Productions (PFP) inside the auditorium of The Wing Luke Museum.

Immediately, the narrator and main character Akira, depicted by Denny Le, explains that Mukashi Mukashi doesn’t exactly translate into “once upon a time,” but is really closer to “a long time ago in a place far far away,” and then he breaks frame yet again to comment “There I go quoting ‘Star Wars.’ I’m such a geek.”

In under 20 seconds Shimano gives us both a key theme and the pattern of the play: it just doesn’t quite translate, and we pause to comment out of frustration.

Akira is a young, gay, fourth-generation Japanese-American (yonsei) with underwhelming success in the dating realm. Heather is his European-American friend from college that encourages him to try online dating to end his loneliness. As Heather (Emily Feliciano) coaches Akira on the nuances of dating success — online and otherwise — he shares with her Japanese stories as best as he can remember them from his childhood.

Mukashi, Mukashi, a bamboo cutter finds a very small person inside a stick of bamboo who rapidly grows into a beautiful young woman. The cutter and his wife name her Moon-Child. Such is her beauty that suitors of all ranks come to woo her with poetry and brave deeds.

She presents each with a seemingly impossible quest and whichever one succeeds will win her hand. Off they go, and Akira will share the story of each of these five heroes over the course of the play as it relates to his own dating travails.

When Akira has two interested potential dates via his online dating account, he faces a choice. In the story, this is framed as a choice between a hot suitor versus a smaller, more introspective one.

The hot suitor becomes Kintaro, a legendary Japanese hero who is naturally attuned to animals and has tremendous strength. His story has inspired generations of Japanese boys to exercise and become strong. Akira picks the smaller man, though, and the play’s action returns to the online dating situation. Heather sees by his dating profile that the rejected “Kintaro” is bisexual and Akira passes his contact information over to her.

Because the stories, comments, and character journeys change shape, merge and float about like so many pods in a lava lamp, director Brad Walker had his job cut out for him.

Walker handled these challenges with the use of many more props and costuming touches like wigs, hand puppets, masks, fake beards and even some blocking (how the actors move about the stage) than is typical for a reading.

From left to write, producer Maggie Lee, playwright Kirk Shimano and director Brad Walker at a Thursday night post-reading discussion at The Wing Luke Museum. (Photo by Roger Tang)
From left to write, producer Maggie Lee, playwright Kirk Shimano and director Brad Walker at a Thursday night post-reading discussion at The Wing Luke Museum. (Photo by Roger Tang)

These were smart to do as there is a lot for the audience to track. For example, when Akira dons a princess crown in one of the stories and shifts to a higher pitched voice, we know he’s enacting the princess role. He takes it off to say something as Akira, and puts it back on to become the princess again. Generally it worked, and it should work better in a full production. But, if Shimano used fewer stories it would clear up on the page.

In Act II, Mima, the spirit of Akira’s great grandmother, a first-generation Japanese-American (issei), gets frustrated with how he’s mauling the stories and offers some familial coaching. She also shares her own journey from Japan to the U.S. and her struggles with her husband to found a school for the children of Japanese immigrants. Her stories are far from fairy tales.

Right upon arrival Mima makes herself useful by connecting a Japanese bachelor with his picture bride stranded by U.S. Customs on Angel Island near San Francisco. The prospective bride will stay there until the man she might be marrying comes to retrieve her. Though only a few lines of dialogue, one sees that picture brides are similar to online dating — roughly translating for the technology available at that time.

Mima is interned by the U.S. military during World War II along with her husband, but they’re incarcerated in in different camps. Akira’s great-grandfather falls ill and dies while imprisoned. Curiously, Shimano writes these stories very abruptly, matching the way he heard them himself as he was growing up. He got the message: you sort of know these stories, but you don’t talk about it too much.

In the end, Akira is left with Mima’s message: stories can only carry us so far, and the best meaning of your life is in how you live it. Then Heather grabs Akira by the hand and soon they are out dancing in gay bars. And so Akira’s life story goes on.

In a post-play discussion, Shimano said it’s been about five years since he began drafting this play, and nearly 15 years since he first thought about using a UCLA graduate student’s recording of his great grandmother’s oral history.

He said he lifted much of her dialogue from that work and wove it into the second act.

Over the years, the character of Heather has evolved more into a friend whose role is to call Akira out on his stuff.

“We all need a Heather in our lives,” said Lee at the end of the post-play discussion.

This story has been updated since its original publication. 

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