The High Tide of History: ‘The Great Wave’ US premiere at Berkeley Rep


“In a society that employs a strong sense of ethnic and cultural unity, ethnic prejudice and discrimination typically prevent minority members from participating in main stream society. Both Japan and Korea are good examples of such a rigid society.”
– Eung-Ryul Kim, “The Life Instability of Intermarried Japanese Women in Korea” (1999), Korea University and University of Southern California, The Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies

Two stories came to mind as I was watching this play. The first was Crowded Fire’s 2017 production of You for Me for You by Mia Chung. It would be hard not to: both plays deal with an family separations involving North Korea; both take novel, sometimes humorous, approaches to portraying the Korean language barrier; and it just so happens that I saw this show sitting in the same row as Crowded Fire’s Artistic Director and Managing Director. The other story that came to mind was Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away, in which a young Japanese girl held from her home and stripped of her identity by altering her name.


The storm encompasses Reiko (Yurié Collins), Etsuko (Sharon Omi), Tetsuo (Julian Cihi), and Hanako (Jo Mei). Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Though both stories dealt with protagonists trying their best to cope with powers beyond their control (the former being political, the latter being supernatural), I’d be remiss not to mention that the former story was exclusively Korean(-American) and the latter Japanese. The Great Wave strives to be both; no easy task involving two superpowers with such a checkered history.

Our Japanese protagonist, Hanako (Jo Mei), is pretty ignorant of that history. If she’d ever studied it, the 17-year-old put it out of her mind the way most US teens tend to forget the Trail of Tears. Her daily routine resembles that of most teens around the world: coasting through class; brown-nosing her mother (Sharon Omi); and being a thorn in the side of her sister Reiko (Yurié Collins). When Hanako torpedoes Reiko’s chances with classmate Tetsuo (Julian Cihi), Reiko unleashes a verbal assault on her sister that sends the latter running out into the rain during Japan’s infamous 1979 typhoon season. Hanako never returns.

At first, it’s suspected she’s the victim of foul play (with Tetsuo being prime suspect, as he mentioned wanting to take photos of the “great waves”), but Inspector Takeshi (David Shih) soon believes her to have been swept out to sea. The truth isn’t that easy.

The Great Wave US premiere at Berkeley Rep (2019) - lobby disclaimer

We soon learn that Hanako was kidnapped by agents from North Korea. Their goal is use genuine Japanese citizens as training reference for Korean sleeper agents in Japan. Hanako, the lackadaisical student, is now forced to be teacher to those who want to destroy the home she may never see again.


Hanako (Jo Mei, right) ruins Reiko’s (Yurié Collins, left) plans with Tetsuo (Julian Cihi, center). Photo by Kevin Berne.

I’ll say this for director Mark Wing-Davey: he keeps Francis Turnly’s text moving at a steady clip. There were moments when I actively “felt” the near-three-hour runtime, but to the credit of the playwright and director, every scene is given appropriate time to breath without overstaying its welcome. Similarly, the 20-plus-year timeline of the story flows well without feeling rushed or neglecting vital information. Granted, the variations on the “1 Year Later” card are used so many times that it practically becomes a running gag.

Still, the characters are given an appropriate level of dimension to where even the North Korean’s motivations make a level of sense. (Japan’s use of Korean women as “comfort” is alluded to by name.) It would have been easy to take the South Park/Seth Rogen route and paint them as caricatures, but Turnly wisely paints them as products of the environment in which they were raised. That’s why it rings true when Hanako’s teaches would-be Korean sleeper Jung Sun (Cindy Im) as much about Japan as Jung Sun teacher her about North Korean. The two have something of a Prince and the Pauper relationship that complicates should be a straightforward lesson.


The storm has brought Hanako (Jo Mei, right) into the North Korean custory of Jiro (Paul Nakauchi, left) and Jung Sun (Cindy Im, center). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Similarly, when Reiko and her mother – both clinging to the idea that Hanako is still alive – are stalled by bureaucratic red tape at every turn, it isn’t hard to see why. Inspector Takeshi’s investigation produces no body and, as the Japanese government official (Paul Juhn) explains, “Anything involving North Korea means we have to tread very carefully.” Frustrating, yes, but also the truth. All the characters are at the mercy of wheels set into motion before most of them were even born.

If the text has a flaw, it’s that the dialogue is often so literal that it occasionally feels like pandering and over-explaining. The scenario and performances do well enough (Full disclosure: I’m currently understudying Berkeley Rep’s production of White Noise and socialized with the cast at a recent dinner), yet the speech will sometimes feel as if it’s putting too fine a point on what the audience can already tell.

Still, the show upholds the Rep’s fine reputation for technical prowess. Despite a seemingly unavoidable SNAFU on opening night, Chika Shimizu’s set was an effective use of space and design. In addition to set piece floating in-and-out (Hanako’s Japanese home, her North Korean home, the Japanese official’s office, etc.), the main pieces consist of two concrete walls with walkways atop them. They double as everything from the street side of the Japanese coastline (aided by a row of rocks and seaweed along the downstage edge) to the cold walls inside a North Korean gulag. Shimizu’s design illustrates the similarities pointed out by Jung Sun and the quote up top.


When Hanako goes missing, Inspector Takeshi’s (David Shih) only suspect is Tetsuo (Julian Cihi). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Helping things further are Lap Chi Chu’s light, Bray Poor’s sounds (I now have an audio frame of reference for a crushed bonsai pot), and Tara Knight’s projections, which both inform us of the time and set the national scene – projecting beach vistas and military marches. Seeing as how few American’s have seen North Korean uniforms up close, Meg Neville certainly deserves credit for how closely her threads resemble what we’ve all seen only on the news. I am, however, surprised the program lists no dialect coach, given how frequently the characters not switch from English to Japanese to Korean (and back), but also adopt national accents depending on the scene. Credit or not, great work.

The Great Wave is an interesting examination of how our histories shape us in ways we take for granted. We’re all the result of the people and actions who came before us, but that doesn’t mean we should let those factors define us. Nor does ignorance of them protect us. I considered opening this review with a line from Japanese Emperor Akihito’s 1996 welcome to North Korean president Kim Dae Jung: “There was a period when our nation brought to bear great sufferings upon the people of the Korean Peninsula. The deep sorrow that I feel over this will never be forgotten.”


In North Korea, Hanako’s (Jo Mei) life is constantly changing, as are those of Hana (Grace Chan Ng) and Kum-Chol (Stephen Hu). Photo by Kevin Berne.

It’s only when we confront our past that we can move on from it. Not all the characters in The Great Wave are given the luxury of simply moving on, but watching them adapt was absolutely fascinating.


The Great Wave is scheduled to run until the 27th of October in the Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Rep.
The show runs 3 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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