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Who Knew? Fugu, Japan’s Schindlers and Refugees

Ed Rampell: Co-writer/director and son of a concentration camp survivor Howard Teichman’s Fugu sheds light on a little known episode of the exodus that took about 6,000 wandering Jews not to the Promised Land - but to the Land of the Rising Sun.
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Scott K. Takeda and Rosie Moss. (Photos Michael Lamont)

FUGUTheater Review

The day after the Trump regime issued its executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspending the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, West Coast Jewish Theatre presented the world premiere of a play about Holocaust-era expatriate Jews. Co-writer/director and son of a concentration camp survivor Howard Teichman’s Fugu sheds light on a little known episode of the exodus that took about 6,000 wandering Jews not to the Promised Land - but to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The eponymous Oskar Schindler of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 feature Schindler’s List rescued about 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust. But Chione Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul posted in 1939 at Lithuania, reportedly saved at least five times as many Jews from that Baltic nation, which was Soviet-occupied during the Hitler/Stalin Non-Aggression Pact. In 1984 Sugihara became the only Japanese person Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel, honored as one of “the Righteous Among Nations.”

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Peter Altschuler, Rosie Moss, Warren Davis.

There have been a number of films about this Japanese savior, including the 1997 Oscar winning live action short Visas and Virtues. In 2000 PBS aired the documentary Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness. There was a Japanese feature starring Takashi Sorimachi as Sugihara in 2005, as well as a 2015 Japanese-Polish co-production called Persona Non Grata, with Toshiaki Karasawa as the determined diplomat. And a memorial was dedicated to Sugihara in L.A.’s Little Tokyo in 2002. But Fugu is not another retelling per se of Sugihara’s heroism - rather, it is a dramatization about what befell those 6,000 Jews from Lithuania he enabled to cross the USSR on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. What happened to them?

Fugu reveals that they settled in Kobe, creating a thriving community in Japan. But as the drama - which Teichman told me is “90%” historically accurate - unfolds, the ulterior motive for the Jewish survivors’ relative good fortune is revealed. At Kobe, they are overseen by Colonel Nohiro Yasue (Ryan Moriarty), Imperial Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister. But the Jews’ precarious position is endangered when the Butcher of Warsaw, Colonel Josef Meisinger (David Preston), who is posted at Germany’s embassy in Japan, gets a whiff of the refugees’ presence in Kobe. Like a cross between Les Miserables’ Inspector Javert and Colonel Hans Landa, the Nazi hunter played by Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, the Gestapo officer obsessively tracks the Juden down, so they can be meet their fate as the Final Solution looms.

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Peter Altschuler and Warren Davis.

The two-act drama, which Teichman wrote with Steven G. Simon, unravels what happened. On the one hand, Tokyo was one third of the Tripartite Pact, a military alliance aligning Japan with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. On the other, the Japanese did not possess the fanatical anti-Semitism of its Hitlerian partner.

So, aided by his bookish top aide Setsuzo Kotsuji (Scott Keiji Takeda), son of a Shinto priest, Colonel Yasue pursues the Fugu option. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!!!] Believing the ridiculous “protocols of Zion” type of stereotypes propagated by Tokyo’s Nazi ally, Yasue schemes to dispatch a representative of Kobe’s Jews, Dr. Avram Kaufman (Warren Davis) via secret submarine to America. Falling for the absurd trope that the Jews control Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood, Yasue thinks Kaufman has high-ranking contacts in those circles, who he will inform of Japan’s decent treatment of Kobe’s Jewish community. And in doing so, the deluded Yasue fantasizes he will prevent the war brewing between the USA and Imperial Japan from erupting.

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Meanwhile, the bloodthirsty Meisinger is hot on the trail of the Jews, demanding the liquidation of Kobe’s Eastern European displaced persons. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!!!] When it becomes apparent to the naïve Yasue that Kaufman is just a run-of-the-mill schlemiel who doesn’t hobnob with FDR (believed to be a Jew!), Tinseltown moguls or Wall Street financiers, the Fugu plot proves to be untenable. So will Japan’s Jews be turned over to the Nazis for extermination?

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Rosie Moss and Bryna Weiss.

Inquiring minds want to know. In the meantime, matters are further complicated by a growing interracial romance between Dr. Kaufman’s virginal but sexually restless daughter, Sarah (Rosie Moss) and the rather unique, cultured Kotsuji, who has traveled to Palestine and speaks both Hebrew and Yiddish. The Japanese object to this possible liaison, as does Sarah’s father, who is outspokenly opposed to his daughter’s taking up with a “goy.” (Would their children be called “Jew-panese”?) This raises the issues of women’s rights, as does the somewhat daft, older character of Ida Dovitch (drolly played by Bryna Weiss, who has appeared on many TV shows such as Desperate Housewives). Although she’s a yenta, Ida supports Sarah as she makes some pro-feminist remarks, skewering the male dominated orthodox Jewish and Japanese social hierarchies.

Most of the second act takes place in Kobe’s synagogue, where a handwringing Rabbi Shlomo Shapira (Peter Altschuler) strives to be sagacious and to mediate this fine mess. Set designer Kurtis Bedford simply but convincingly renders this place of worship, and, mostly in Act I, adds some Japanese flourishes, such as shoji sliding doors, to evoke an Eastern ambiance.

Most of Fugu is in English, although there is some Yiddish, Hebrew, German and Japanese dialogue. The well-acted play is mostly presented in a naturalistic mode, although director Teichman adds some stylization to suggest Japanese culture, such as Noh theater, along with dancing performed and choreographed by kimono-clad Kaz Matamura. [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!!!] The ending is poignant, as ghosts of the various characters, who are historically-based, disclose their various fates. Quite astoundingly, Setsuzo Kotsuji - who could recite haiku poems in Hebrew or Yiddish - converted to Judaism and spent time back in Israel.

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Kaz Matamura and Matt Gottlieb.

Speaking of which, the man who set the stage - figuratively and literally - also survived the maelstrom of World War II. In 1985 Chione Sugihara described his motivation as “the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes. Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent… I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives...The spirit of humanity, philanthropy... neighborly friendship... with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”

Although now, during the biggest refugee crisis since WWII, it may be in high demand, empathy, alas, is currently in short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Be that as it may, Fugu is arguably the most remarkable report about righteous rescuers of the Chosen People I’ve ever encountered. This head-spinning world premiere proves once again that old cliché: Truth really is stranger than fiction.

West Coast Jewish Theatre presents Fugu on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m. until March 19 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., L.A., CA 90064. Information: (323)821-24449; www.wcjt.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell