Meet Mr. Yaegashi — the New Yunioshi

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By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The new Broadway version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which opened March 20 at the Cort Theatre, has been getting a lot of press, much of it focusing on star Emilia Clarke and her nude scene, or on a casting call for cats to appear in the play.

James Yaegashi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (Photo courtesy of O&M Co.)

No one is talking about Mr. Yunioshi, and that is an indication that the show is not anything like the movie of the same name.

The 1961 film, based on Truman Capote’s novella, starred Audrey Hepburn as New York socialite Holly Golightly. Considered a classic, it is still widely shown and continues to be criticized by Asian American activists for Mickey Rooney’s stereotypical portrayal of Holly’s Japanese neighbor, complete with buck teeth, thick glasses, and an accent mixing up R’s and L’s. Even critics who love the movie have expressed discomfort with Yunioshi, and recent showings have been accompanied by disclaimers.

The current version, adapted by Tony winner Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out,” “Three Days of Rain”) and directed by Tony nominee Sean Matthias (“The Elephant Man,” “Indiscretions”), features an actual Japanese person, James Yaegashi, as I.Y. Yunioshi, and the approach to the character is completely different.

Yaegashi, who was an original cast member of  “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way” and “Take Me Out” on Broadway, talked about his role in a phone interview with The Rafu Shimpo.

When he got a call from the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” casting director a couple of years ago, Yaegashi was well aware of the movie, which he called “one of the most notorious” cases of yellowface — the practice of non-Asian actors playing Asian characters with the use of prosthetics. To understand the new Yunioshi, one has to go back to the original novella, he said.

“He’s a real character, for starters. The film … made so many changes to the story that Capote wrote that he eventually washed his hands of it,” Yaegashi explained, noting that the original took place during World War II, not in the 1960s, and “Yunioshi is a Nisei, a Japanese American from California. In the movie, Mickey Rooney played him as if he was fresh off the boat.”

This background put Yunioshi in a different light, Yaegashi continued. “He’s a successful photographer, high-end, from California … People he loves are interned while he’s out in New York living the high life … He’s a very interesting character.” (Japanese Americans living outside the West Coast exclusion zone were not subject to internment.)

He described Yunioshi’s relationship with Holly as “admiration and longing in terms of her beauty. He’s an artist … He sees her as sort of this quintessential embodiment of beauty. He wants to photograph her but she keeps teasing him and never lets him actually take a picture … It’s totally keeping with her character, someone that needs to be free and refuses to be pinned down in any way, doesn’t want anything that’s going to metaphorically freeze her, capture her.”

James Yaegashi

Although Yunioshi is not one of the main characters, he does start the story, Yaegashi said. “The bulk takes place in flashback, a recollection of ’40s, but it is launched by an event that happens in the ’50s where Yunioshi encounters this African wood sculptor who has sculpted this statue, a spitting image of Holly Golightly, that just captivates Yunioshi’s mind. He comes to Joe the bartender (George Wendt). Joe calls Fred (Cory Michael Smith) … Was this Holly or not?”

Speaking during previews, which began March 4, Yaegashi said of the audiences, “They’ve been really with us. People really like it … It’s sort of being tweaked as we go. Every day we perform at night then we come to the theater the next day. There are changes both in terms of staging and rewrites of the script … a process of refining.”

Although Hepburn has been synonymous with Holly Golightly in popular culture, Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s sword-and-sorcery epic “Game of Thrones,” comes with her own fan base, and the presence of Wendt (Norm from “Cheers”) doesn’t hurt either.

Melinda Clarke as Holly Golightly and Cory Michael Smith as Fred. (Photo by Nathan Johnson)

The cast also includes Paolo Montalban, who appeared in the internment-themed musical “Allegiance” last year at The Old Globe in San Diego. Asked if he would try out for “Allegiance,” which is Broadway-bound, Yaegashi responded, “I’m not a musical theater person.”

The Associated Press review complained about “a ham-fisted reference to the evils of Japanese American internment camps” but called Yaegashi “a bright spot” among the cast.

The New York Daily News predicted, “‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ on Broadway will help fans of the movie collectively erase the memory of Mickey Rooney as buck-toothed Asian I.Y. Yunioshi.”

For more information, visit www.breakfastattiffanysonbroadway.com.

Active Actor

One of Yaegashi’s most memorable roles was as Toru Okada, the protagonist in a stage adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s best-selling novel “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” “The guy who wrote and directed it, Steven Earnhart, went to Japan, knocked on Murakami’s door with a bottle of whiskey, and asked if he could do it … We worked on it a long time … We took it to Singapore last summer and will try to do it in New York.”

Yaegashi’s Off-Broadway credits include “Durango,” “Richard III,” “A Few Stout Individuals” and  “Macbeth.” He has appeared in such films as “Man on a Ledge” and “The Collective,” the TV series “Cashmere Mafia,” and the video games “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “BioShock.”

He is the director of a 2011 comedy, “Lefty Loosey Righty Tighty,” described as the story of three friends on the precipice of middle age. He is taking it to film festivals and is trying to figure out distribution. “We had a super low budget, but I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish with it,” said Yaegashi, who has a cameo in the movie.

A native of Yamagata, which is part of the Tohoku region, Yaegashi conceived “Shinsai: Theaters for Japan,” an international benefit that brought together roughly 100 theaters to support artists recovering from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

George Wendt as Joe the bartender. (Photo by Nathan Johnson)

“We got permission from all these heavy-hitting playwrights — Albee, Sondheim, Kushner, Tony and Pulitzer-winning folks — contributing pieces for it for free, basically,” Yaegashi recalled. The show, which also included works by Japanese and Japanese American playwrights, was performed in New York on the first anniversary of 3/11.

“In partnership with the Japan Playwrights Association, there was an agreement with American playwrights that it could be done in Japan a limited number of times … English plays translated into Japanese were performed once in Tokyo, once in Morioka, one of the prefectures hit by the tsunami,” Yaegashi said. “In the fall, then this year at the second anniversary of the disaster, a theater company in New York took the Japanese-language plays and mounted full productions of them. It kind of has a life of its own now.”

Being on the other side of the mountains, Yamagata was not hit by the tsunami, but “the earthquake was felt very strongly,” Yaegashi said. “My dad is from Sendai. A lot of friends and relatives were affected, but thankfully we didn’t lose anybody. Yamagata served as an evacuation point for people from Fukushima, so … the disasters are still very much a part of life there.”

Yaegashi lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I was disappointed that the review in The New Yorker by Hilton Als (“Single White Female,” April 1st 2013) offered no insight into how the new production handled the portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi.
    Given the context, I was also surprised to find Als write,“There isn’t a chink in Greenberg’s professional script,…” I sent the magazine a letter at the time asking how Als, a writer with an acute awareness of racial sensitivities, made such an unfortunate blunder in word choice. I also wondered how the editorial staff had also missed it, when a similar phrase led to the well-publicized firing of a writer at ESPN the previous year.
    They didn’t respond.

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