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Who Is Myles Fukunaga?

Orrin Nakanelua
Orrin Nakanelua

In 1929, economics and society in Hawai‘i were highly stratified.  When the ten year old son of a banker was kidnapped from Punahou School and killed, the community was horrified, and what happened to the admitted perpetrator has left questions unanswered to this day.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports a new play at Palik? Theatre sheds light on the emotions involved.

Orrin Nakanelua
Credit Orrin Nakanelua
(l-r) Spencer McCarrey, Alaka’i Cunningham, Chase Jusseaume, in Taurie Kinoshita's "A Walking Shadow," about the crime committed by Myles Fukunaga.

“A Walking Shadow”, about the life of Myles Fukunaga, opens this Friday and runs through next week in Palik? Theatre at Windward Community College.

October 19 & 20 (Fri. and Sat.), 7:30 p.m. (Post-show talk with cast on Saturday, October 20) 

October 21 (Sun.), 4:00 p.m.

October 24 (Wed.), 4:00 p.m.

October 25 – 27 (Thurs. – Sat.), 7:30 p.m.                                                                                           

$10 Students, Seniors (65+), Military (with ID)

$15 Adults

Purchase Tickets online at or call (808) 779 – 3456 for more information.

Due to adult situations and themes, this play is recommended for ages 16 and older.

Each performance will be preceded by special Pre-Show Talks on mental illness starting 15 minutes before the beginning of the show.   The 21st and 26th will have Pre-show talks with Amnesty International.

creative commons
Credit creative commons
A view of Bishop Street, Honolulu, in 1920.

It’s amazingly difficult to imagine living in Honolulu in 1929.  Workers were just making their way off the plantations, and social and economic life were highly stratified.  When the ten year old son of a Caucasian banker was kidnapped from Punahou School and killed, the community was horrified.  Then, when the perpetrator turned out to be a quiet 19 year old Nisei, he was quickly hanged on November 19, 1929, in Honolulu.  Questions about his sanity remain unanswered.  

Jon Okamura, Professor in Ethnic Studies at UH M?noa, is about to publish a book on the crime, its social context, and its aftermath.

Okamura:  The haoles viewed the kidnapping and killing of Gil Jameson as challenging their racial supremacy in Hawai‘i and that’s why they wanted Fukunaga executed as quickly as possible.

Fukunaga was given a 90 minute examination by three psychiatrists to determine his competence to stand trial.  The accepted legal procedure at the time, was to examine a suspect over several days to make that determination.  According to Okamura, Fukunaga readily admitted his guilt, because he wanted to be hanged.

Fukunaga had tried to commit suicide twice that year. He worked 80 hours a week in a Waikiki hotel pantry, and was described as a good worker.  In the fall of 1928, he decided to kidnap and murder a child for ransome in a possible scheme to help his parents…? Alaka’i Cunningham plays Myles Fukunaga.

Cunningham:  I did research in it and I was so heartbroken.  I  was so happy to be able to give a voice to this person who was never was able to fully express how he felt.

A Walking Shadow, about the life and death of Myles Fukunaga, debuts this week at WCC's Paliku Theatre.  It is written and directed by Taurie Kinoshita, who recently won the Kennedy Center Excellence in Teaching Theatre Award and the Francis Davis Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award from the University of Hawai‘i.

Burdened by factual material presented in straight, expository fashion, the most effective part of the play is its portrayal of madness.  Fukunaga is flanked by two dark “Kings.”  Spencer McCarrey is one of them. 

McCarrey:  To me, it’s very personal because I’ve been psychotic before, I’ve been through it so I should know how to do it.

Chase Jusseaume is the other dark “King.”

Jusseaume:  Normally you don’t always play parts like this, that let you get a sense of what it means to be these other types of people, the stuff they went through before and how they dealt with it.

McCarrey:  Everything we learned on this production from a historical perspective, we have all these details I personally would never have known if I hadn’t done this production, about the way mental health has operated in Hawai‘i and the way treatments were back then.

The play hints at common treatments for mental illness available in the early 20th century, such as water submersion, centrifugal force, and electroshock therapies which are still in use today.

The play also looks at how the crime affected Fukunaga’s family.  Playwright Kinoshita says the family was ostracized on O‘ahu, and forced to move to Maui.

The crime opened ugly divisions in local society, and consumed the Japanese community with fear and self-loathing.  Professor Okamura relates the handling of the Fukunaga trial to the infamous Massie case three years later, and even into the very recent past, 2011, with the Deedy/Elderts case in Waik?k?.

Playwright Kinoshita uses excerpts from interviews with Fukunaga to penetrate his state of mind.

Kinoshita:  Everybody is a victim.  If you read the research, he wanted to die. He’s enacting the deep seated death wish that he finally gets.

The Fukunaga case is so sensational, its ripples through the community so profound, it was rarely mentioned afterward.  Still, its message about the time seems particularly important today.

Certainly aspects of the Fukunaga case prompt a phrase that sounds increasingly hollow:  “That could never happen again.”

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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