‘Nihonmachi: The Place to Be’ at the Aratani

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Ojiisan (Merv Maruyama) and Alan (Kurt Kuniyoshi) make manju in a scene from "Nihonmachi: The Place to Be."

Ojiisan (Merv Maruyama) and Alan (Kurt Kuniyoshi) make manju in a scene from “Nihonmachi: The Place to Be.”

The highly popular “Nihonmachi: The Place to Be,” a musical journey about California’s Japantowns, returns to Little Tokyo on Saturday, Nov. 16, at 2 p.m. at the Aratani Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

The performance is a benefit for the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association (Little Tokyo Koban) that celebrates its 31st anniversary.

Fugetsu-Do Confectionery presents “Nihonmachi” to celebrate its 110th anniversary. The stage production is based on the history of Fugetsu-Do, one of the nation’s oldest Asian-owned businesses, which was opened in 1903 by the Kito family.

Keiko Kawashima performs odori in a scene from "Nihonmachi: The Place to Be."

Keiko Kawashima performs odori in a scene from “Nihonmachi: The Place to Be.”

Owner Brian Kito stated, “If you live, work or play in Little Tokyo, you should come and enjoy a lesson in Little Tokyo history. I thought it would be a great way to pay tribute to my grandfather Seiichi and my father Roy to bring this production back to Little Tokyo and to share our story – one not soon to be forgotten. The story of a family-owned business for three generations faced with closing its doors.”

Produced by the Los Angeles-based Grateful Crane Ensemble, “Nihonmachi” is written by Sansei playwright Soji Kashiwagi (“The Camp Dance: The Music & The Memories”), directed by Darrell Kunitomi, with musical direction by Scott Nagatani.

This two-act show tells the fictional story of Alan Iwata, a Sansei manju maker who is faced with shutting down his family business after 99 years in Japantown. But just before he closes his doors, the spirit of his Issei grandfather returns and takes Alan on a journey back some 77 years to Nihonmachi the way it used to be.

“And along the way,” said Kashiwagi, “our Sansei character meets his feisty Issei grandmother, sees his family business through the Great Depression, the war years in camp, resettlement after camp, redevelopment in the ’50s and ’60s, the Asian American Movement of the ’70s and the redress movement in the ’80s.”

Fugetsudo 110 oval logo bagBy learning his family history, Alan realizes the tremendous sacrifices and challenges his family overcame to keep the business alive, and in the end he decides it’s well worth the extra effort to work one more year so that he and the community can celebrate 100 years of making manju together.

“Our show tells a Nihonmachi story through the eyes of the Japanese American manju-ya family,” said Kashiwagi. “If you look at our three remaining Japantowns, the one business that has lasted 100 years or more is the manju-ya, so that’s why I decided to focus our story around this manju family.”

“Nihonmachi” features classic Japanese and American songs interspersed throughout the show, including “Oboro Zukiyo,” “Sumida-Gawa,” “Jinsei Gekijo,” “Mennai Chidori,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Night and Day,” and “Koko ni Sachi Ari,” to name a few. Also included is a medley of songs in tribute to the late Misora Hibari, the enormously popular Japanese singer and actress.

“All of the songs will trigger fond memories and will take our community back to a special time and place in their lives,” said Kashiwagi. “For the Nisei, the Japanese songs especially will bring back memories of their Issei parents.

“For the Sansei, these songs are also very emotional because they remember hearing their grandparent or parent singing them as they were growing up. And many of the songs, especially those by Misora Hibari, gave our community strength and hope and helped us get through some very difficult times throughout our history.”

The Aratani Theatre is located at the JACCC, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo. Tickets are $75 (reserved orchestra section), $45 (rear orchestra), $35 (balcony); and $70, $40 and $30, respectively, for groups of 10 or more.

A post-performance mochi reception to celebrate Fugetsu-Do’s anniversary will follow in the JACCC Plaza, sponsored by Kito, who is also president of the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association.

For tickets, information, and sponsorship opportunities, call the Little Tokyo Koban at (213) 613-1911 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m, Monday through Saturday. Tickets may be purchased at the Koban, 307 First St., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Tickets can be purchased by phone by calling (213) 680-3700 or online at www.jaccc.org.

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