Monday, April 7, 2014

The Mikado, my socially aware kids, and Orientalist bias

This weekend we watched part of The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. We only watched part of it because it happened to be a film of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's 1939 production, and as it turned out, it was too excruciating to watch.

I have always enjoyed the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as light and often silly pieces reflecting the culture of their time. I was in The Pirates of Penzance once, and it was incredible fun. I have some ideas about what took this particular production and turned it into "arrrrrgh!" Part of it was that the sets and costumes were so incredibly elaborate - it became much harder to think of it as light and silly. Part of it was that they had no clue about Japanese language and had fake kanji scrawled inexpertly all over the place. Part of it was that they mixed a lot of realistic things with a lot of totally ridiculous things. Part of it was of course that none of the actors were Asian (though to expect that of D'Oyly Carte in 1939 of course is a stretch to start with).

A few minutes in I started to realize that I probably should have treated the whole thing as an exercise in anthropology and history, a sort of teachable moment from the perspective of social justice and historical awareness.

And it was that. We just couldn't endure it for very long.

My son was offended. My daughter was, as she termed it, "embarrassed."

I can't say that I'm unhappy with their reactions. I totally agreed with their assessments, and I'm very happy, in fact, that they have developed a kind of social awareness that I never had until I was much older. I did feel disappointed, though, that this had been their first introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan.

At the breakfast table the following morning, my husband and I spoke with our kids about an experience we'd had - the experience, in fact, that had motivated us to suggest the movie. He and I had been to a performance of The Mikado in the town of Chichibu, Japan. Chichibu is in the outer suburbs of Tokyo and is hypothesized to be the town on which the "Town of Titipu" was originally based. After many years of being banned in Japan, this was the first time it was being staged there, and so he and I went out to see it. It was amazing, and we both really enjoyed it. For one thing, the costumes were done by a kabuki company, and let me tell you, they were incredible. For another thing, the audience was into the spirit of the thing. The song about the list of potential candidates for execution had even been revised to include "kids on cell phones." It was delightful.

It was utterly, utterly unlike what we saw in the movie.

At this point I'm pretty sure that The Mikado itself is so problematic in its ignorant portrayal of Japan that I may not ever be able to enjoy it again. In a sense this is a shame, since I have liked the songs a great deal in the past. I'm happy to continue enjoying The Pirates of Penzance or other goofy pieces that make fun of English society, of which Gilbert and Sullivan were a part. I feel very lucky that I got to see that production in Japan, which I see in a sense as Japanese people taking the opportunity to reclaim the piece and turn it into something that belonged to them. That is a memory that I will value, and share, but when I try to introduce my kids to operettas again, I'll be going in a different direction.

I feel good that we were able to talk about our feelings as a family, and reinforce my kids' sense that it's a complicated issue, but that they were entirely right to object.



  1. It's cool that your kids have had the opportunity to be so tuned into things like this. There are a lot of things I once enjoyed that now make me wince, knowing what I know now.

    This makes me wonder about the origins of some of the hostility against greater social consciousness and awareness (termed "PC" by its detractors). I've often noticed that people sometimes act as if their favorite toy is being taken away when they're asked to consider the harm that inaccurate stereotypes can do. I suppose that is a price one has to pay for greater sensitivity, and not everyone is willing to pay it.

    1. Yes, I think you make a good point. It's hard when one discovers that something one has always loved is deeply problematic.

  2. For a while now, we periodically watch episodes of the original Hawaii 5-0 on Netflix ('68), and it's definitely a time capsule: the stories hold up fairly well, but where on one hand the scripts treat the Japanese fairly respectfully, they're often played by non-Asian actors (poor Ricardo Montalban!) right alongside Asian actors (I can only imagine how they felt about that).

    It's kind of sobering to think of the things that were going on in (admittedly the beginning of) my lifetime.

    1. Wow, yes. It's hard to imagine, and yet I am still amazed by the whitewashing that goes on in modern times.