“The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga” is an award-winning musical about the adventures of four young Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century. The musical is based on an autobiographical manga written and illustrated by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama. Last Wednesday, a performance of the musical was presented at USC in Joyce J. Cammilleri Hall.
In 1904 a young Japanese man named Yoshitaka Kiyama and his friends took a ship across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. He adopted the name Henry and his friends adopted the names Charlie, Fred and Frank. The four friends went through an unusual 20 years together, from being quarantined on Angel Island, surviving the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, countless failures, heartbreaks and experiencing successes in their immigration.
More than 100 years later, in 2017, their real-life story was brought to the stage as a musical titled, “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga.” USC Visions and Voices presented a concert performance of the musical as well as a pre-performance discussion with the playwright and composer, Min Kahng, director, Leslie Martinson and translator and manga historian Frederik L. Schodt. The discussion was moderated by Julia Cho, a co-founder of Artists at Play.
The panel vividly described the story behind the musical and its source material, a manga book written and drawn by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama. Kiyama was a Japanese man who lived in San Francisco in the early 20th century. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute and worked on a cartoon about his experience as an immigrant in the style of American cartoon strips of the time. He tried to have the manga serialized in a Japanese-language local newspaper in San Francisco but was unsuccessful. Kiyama had the work printed in Japan in 1931 and returned to self-publish it in San Francisco.
Translator Frederik L. Schodt came across a copy of Kiyama’s manga at the University of California’s East Asian Library in 1980. He did lots of research about the book and started to translate it in 1997. Having been studying the book for decades, Schodt found the story mostly based on real experiences and real people. Schodt’s later studies also showed that the reason it was not published in America was because the manga was too topical and realistic, especially of its portrayal of personal and legislative racism in California at the time.
Min Kahng, the writer and composer of the musical found Schodt’s translation of the manga in a bookstore. Reading through it, he felt an emotional pull to turn the story into a show. “What really drew me was [the author] created these four characters with distinct personalities, distinct goals,” Min said. For him, if there wasn’t this core of friendships, the story might be a good didactic history presentation. What fascinated him was the friendship between the four immigrants. And he wanted to focus on what does friendship looked like in these kinds of contained communities when they go through extreme circumstances.
The performance and discussion drew a large crowd. Some audience members had to stand throughout the performance since the house was filled. But that didn’t stop audiences from fully engaging in the show, laughing and sighing along as they watched the story of these four friends unfold.
Kahng cast Asian men in the four lead roles and had female actors play other characters of different genders and ethnicities. Charlie, son of a former samurai, wants to live the American dream and is eager to leave the old country and old ways behind. Frank has a dream of opening his own shoe store. Fred just wants to make enough money to buy a farm. Henry, a stand-in for Kiyama himself, is comparatively quiet and enthusiastically focuses on his art.
The four immigrants’ journey pursuing the American dream in the early 20th century was filled with obstacles. They worked all kinds of low-level jobs and people seemed to take their labor for granted as if Japanese immigrants were supposed to be houseboys. Charlie’s request to gain his citizenship was denied twice, even after he’d fought for the United States on the battlefield in World War I.
Despite their challenges, Kiyama managed to present some sad stories with verbal and visual wit, which laid the foundation for the musical to have an entertaining and delightful tone.
The music helped the audience immerse themselves in the story. The songs of “The Four Immigrants” were catchy and powerful, switching smoothly between exuberance and poignant solemnity. When Charlie receives news that his father had died,, sad piano music composed with subtle Japanese style started, reinforcing the heartbreaking atmosphere. In between the melancholy moments, there are jubilant moments with the melody and lyrics conveying a sense of hopefulness.
The musical also provided insight into an experience that is not documented. “There are very few first-person documents about what it was like to be an immigrant,” Schodt said before the performance. He elaborated that, in the current political climate, first-person experiences about immigration are an important addition to the larger discussion and can be a valuable way to dispel common misconceptions about the issue.
“The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” was craeted in a time when xenophobic and nativist belief was open and prevalent. America had a history of racist immigration policies, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and The Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas for specific countries and banning all immigrants from Asia, including Japan.
Monica Lee, secretary of the Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theatre commented that it is crucial for a story like this to be brought to the public. She suggested that representation is important, as the Asian immigrants’ experience doesn’t get a lot of press.
Nick Tawa, an audience member commented that it was a fun experience watching the show. His forefathers immigrated to the States in that age. “What was unique about it is that it’s all pre-World War II. A lot of the narratives that I get told from Japanese American perspectives are usually about the internment camps,” he said. “The story is artistically and historically unique.”