Meeting the Four Immigrants & Fred Schodt

Some time last Fall, while I was browsing through a used-book store in Berkeley, the title of a certain comic book caught my attention: The Four Immigrants Manga. I grabbed what I thought would be a 21st-century graphic novel. Turns out, it was a 20th-century graphic novel. Four Immigrants was written and drawn by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama in the early 1900s, and it chronicles the adventures and mishaps of the author and his three friends after their arrival from Japan to the San Francisco Bay Area. They live through major historical events like the 1906 Earthquake, World War I, the 1915 World's Fair and Prohibition, all of which are captured in American comic-strip style. What amazed me most about the book is that Kiyama's four characters - Henry, Charlie, Frank & Fred - each arrive in San Francisco with different aspirations, and they each encounter a unique experience with life in the United States. That sounded like the set-up of a great musical if I ever heard one.

I wanted to pursue the path of adapting this work in the right way, so I e-mailed the translator of Four Immigrants, Frederik L. Schodt, who just so happens to live in the Bay Area himself. I invited him to watch my show The Song of the Nightingale so he could get a sense of what kind of writing I do. After he attended the show, we met up for some ramen (how appropriate) in downtown Oakland. Fred turned out to be a very warm and friendly individual. He said he was impressed by my work on Nightingale, and that he felt Four Immigrants could translate well on-stage. He also talked about his own path to finding Kiyama's work, and how he had ended up actually meeting the artist's surviving family in Japan. He encouraged me to pursue writing a first draft, and suggested that once it was complete, we could meet up again and continue the conversation from that point forward.

Now, as with any creative venture, there's no way of telling what the life of this project will be. But I'm excited to dive into the work, and have been in serious research-mode, learning as much as I can about a variety of related topics like Japanese immigration at the turn of the 20th, San Francisco history, comic books, theatrical and musical styles of the time period, and even Japanese wood block prints. At the end of April, I will be participating in a writer's retreat at TheatreWorks, which will give me time to start constructing the basic shape of the show to see whether it can grow into something that stands on its own.

In some weird way, I feel like I am walking in Kiyama's footsteps. In the first episode of Four Immigrants, Kiyama portrays himself as a young man who would like "to study art, to eventually contribute to the art world back home in Asia. Now, the US is my home, and I am not a visual artist, but I feel a certain kinship to what Kiyama accomplished through Four Immigrants. I want to honor both the complicated history and the simple, tongue-in-cheek humor Kiyama has captured in the work. By doing so, I hope my musical adaptation of the work will bring more people to learn of the fascinating Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, as well as become its own contribution to the art world here in the States.

Posted on April 11, 2014 .