Monthly Archives: February 2012

Teahouse of the August Moon: A fantastic illusion in Okinawa under U.S. Occupation


“Little story now concluded. But history of world unfinished. Lovely ladies, kind gentlemen, go home to ponder. What was true at beginning remains true. Pain make man think, thought make man wise, and wisdom make life endurable. So, may August moon bring gentle sleep. Sayonara.”

These are last words of Sakini acted by Marlon Brando at the last scene of a film “Teahouse of the August Moon” in 1956. Do you know the movie? The setting is Okinawa in Japan under U.S. occupation. Marlon Brando, good-looking, Academy Award-winning, one of the greatest actors at that time, did “yellow face makeup” and appeared as an Okinawan (Japanese) interpreter in the film.

     Here is the story: Captain Fisby is relegated to Okinawa under the U.S. occupation because he has failed many things. Colonel Purdy sends him to a village named Tobiki to bring local people democracy and to build a school in a shape of Pentagon there. Fisby tries to work hard to complete his mission with Plan B, but Sakaini, the interpreter, mistranslates purposely and controls him slyly. At first Fisby tries to follow Plan B and rejects approach of Lotus Blossom, a geisha, but he gives up following the plan and accepts the geisha’s service, and gradually goes native.

     Fisby uses all materials for building a school and build a big teahouse instead. He gives up bringing education system to the village, but starts a brewery for brandy there. All of them are local people’s hope and he thinks about their happiness. One day, Purdy asks about his progress of building the schoolhouse on the phone and he thinks Fisby is going crazy while talking, and sends a psychiatrist Captain McLean for him.

     However, McLean is influenced by Fisby and the local citizens and even starts natural farming there in Japanese kimono. McLean and Fisby channel all their energies into building the teahouse and the brewery business with locals. Purdy notices something unexpected is happening in the village and visits there. He finds out the teahouse has been built instead of a school and local people do not learn about democracy but work hard for making brandy, and gets angry. He orders his man to destroy the teahouse and the brewery. Fisby and people watch everything is being destroyed.

     At night Fisby and Lotus Blossom say tearful good-bye each other. Sakini comforts him saying he is not a failure. Fisby says he used to worry about not being a success. But he learned the wisdom of gracious acceptance and has got an inner peace between his ambitions and limitations in the small village. They say good-bye and Fisby leaves when Purdy appears to look for him. A senator is using the village as a good model of policy of American occupation. Purdy feels abandoned because photographers are coming for coverage, but he has destroyed everything.

     But Sakini tells the colonel that destroyed things were water barrels and high quality brandy is hidden and the teahouse was just taken away and is able to be set up again. Purdy is very glad to hear that and calls Sakini an American. Sakini calls people to put everything back. They rebuild the teahouse as singing together. Fisby and Purdy are invited inside under the beautiful moon.

Marlon Brando does not look like Japanese at all from the eyes of Japanese at the beginning of the movie, but he has been as Japanese without any discomfort by the end of the film. Some people might disagree with me, but at least he cannot look like an Anglo-American. He hunches to show himself shorter, mimics Japanese action, and speaks Japanese and broken English in Japanese accent during the drama. I think he became a Hollywood star because of not only being good-looking but also his acting skills and his strong sense of professionalism.

Although I really enjoyed the film in a class at the university, according to Ms. Shoko Yonaha, a researcher of Okinawa’s entertainment, it was a box-office bomb in Okinawa when it was released there for the first time in 1957. It was because Okinawan thought that the movie insulted Okinawa and its people and caricatured them as colonial population, and protested against the production. Actually, three years before it, in 1954, a play of “Teahouse of the August Moon” was performed on the U.S. Army Base in Okinawa. The promoter tried to put on the stage outside of the base because it was big success, but he had to give it up due to the protest movement.

Why did Okinawan people act so repulsively against “Teahouse of the August Moon”? According to Ms. Yonaha, it was because of the scenario that the U.S. force is planning to build a school in a shape of Pentagon, but it is changed to build a teahouse by desire of local people, who regarded it as getting looked down. However, Okinawa in the film is not Okinawa at all, though I have never been there and cannot see its real scenery and life of more than 50 years ago. Okinawa has its unique natural, historical and cultural features and language. The movie looks like a digest of introducing Japan video.

This film is not a documentary at all but a comedy. A military satire. In fact, it is more a cynical joke of American military service, in which people follow manuals, never express their opinions, and just obey orders in the vertical and class society, than insulting Okinawan people.For instance, it is interesting that a character Colonel Purdy thinks only about his career advancement because of his wife’s desire, and that he adores adventure but never combats with enemies in the battle field or enjoys a wild life in nature of Okinawa but just reads an adventure magazine in his office.

There are many strange things in the film through the point of view of Japanese. For example, in the movie geisha is treated as a prostitute. Probably, people in the U.S at that time thought so. Yet, Lotus Blossom, the geisha, played by Machiko Kyo is very beautiful and charming. Besides, it is really fun that Okinawan people just look like being controlled by the U.S. Army but they achieve what they want by using Americans. So, there is no need to raise your eyebrows if the movie does not depict real Okinawa or Japan. So, why don’t you try to see it as a fantasy once?

By the way, the words I introduced at the beginning of this page finished with Japanese word “sayonara”.  Marlon Brando said the line and it is interesting that he appeared a film named “Sayonara” next year of “Teahouse of the August Moon”.

The Mikado – The Town of Titipu: A Superb Fantasy World in the 19th Century


Miya sama, miya sama,
On n’m-ma no maye ni
Pira-Pira suru no wa
Nan gia na
Toko tonyare tonyare na…

The opera known by this bouncy Japanese music is The Mikado written by W.S. Gilbert and composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1885 in the U.K. Do you know the opera? If you’re a Westerner, you may have seen it once, or may know at least the title. As the title The Mikado, which is an old nominal designation for the emperor in Japan, tells, the story setting is Japan, and it is said that The Town of Titipu, the subtitle of the play, derives from Chichibu, a town in Japan. Despite that, most Japanese people have not heard of even the title. I might not have known it if I did not have an opportunity to see it on DVD at my class at the university. How come the opera is not popular at all in Japan?

Mikado in the opera unlike real emperors in Japan is a dictator like Kim Jon-il in North Korea or Qhadafi in Libya. Besides, all settings and costumes are Japanese-inspired, but they do not show real Japan’s style, and all characters’ behaviors are inconceivable as Japanese in the era. It seems that promoters believe that it would be dangerous to perform The Mikado in Japan because many people might think that they, their culture and country are insulted. In fact, only one newspaper publisher in Osaka make it into an article when the first performance of the opera in Japan was in 1887. It was held in Yokohama near Tokyo at that time, but none of newspaper companies in Tokyo area wrote about it. They ignored the opera, or suppressed the news for avoiding upsetting people. In addition, the title was changed as “Three Little Maids from School”. Probably the promoter and those involved in the opera were afraid of Japanese people’s protest by using the word of mikado.

Interestingly, the fact of the first opera performance in Japan in 1887 was erased in its music history, in which the first opera was played in 1894 and the first performance of The Mikado was held in 1946. Moreover, Japanese people couldn’t enter the hall when The Mikado was performed in 1946 in Yokohama because Japan was under American occupation and the hall was for only GHQ. Now, what is The Mikadoerased from Japan’s musical history and removing Japanese audience about?

This is Titipu, a town somewhere in Japan, where Mikado rules over the country and has set up “Flirting Law”, by which men have to be beheaded if they flirt with women except their wives.

     Mikado has a son named Nanki-Poo, who runs away from the palace to avoid the forced marriage with an old ugly bride elect named Katisha, and lives in the town of Titipu disguising as a musician. Almost one year ago, Nanki-Poo fell in love at first sight with Yum-Yum, a cute girl, but he began roaming around because he was shocked at knowing she had a fiancé named Ko-Ko, the tailor. But he comes back to the town since he has heard that Ko-Ko will be beheaded for violating “Flirting Law” and expects to get Yum-Yum .

     Somehow, Ko-Ko has become the Lord High Executioner when Nanki-Poo returns. Ko-Ko has to kill himself as the executioner and after that he will execute the next condemned. It is impossible physically. So, no one has been beheaded for a while. Mikado notices about that and orders Ko-Ko to execute someone within a month. Otherwise, Ko-Ko has to be killed.

     Nanki-Poo tries to kill himself because he thinks it is no worth for living without Yum-Yum. Ko-Ko happens to see and stops it. He asks Nanki-Poo to execute him. Nanko-Poo accepts it with one condition: to marry Yum-Yum and live together until the day comes when he is beheaded. And Ko-Ko reluctantly admits it.

     But Pooh-Bah (Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chamberlain, Attorney-General, Chanceloor of the Exchequer, Privy Purse, and Private Secretary ― He has been in the all important positions after other ministers quit their jobs to avoid working under Ko-Ko.) tolds Ko-Ko that the wife has to be buried alive if her husband is executed by the law. Ko-Ko is shocked because he is going to marry Yum-Yum after killing Nanki-Poo.

     Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing, a friend of Yum-Yum, make up a story that Nanki-Poo has already been beheaded and let the young couple leave the town. Then, Mikado appears. He is sorry to miss the execution, but Katisha, Nanki-Poo’s fiancée, finds out the executed person is Nanki-Poo, and Mikado gets furious and decides to kill Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing.

     Those three succeed in stealing for time on their execution and tell Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum about their situation. Nanki-Poo thinks everything will be going good if Ko-Ko can marry Katisha. Ko-Ko tries to pursue Katisha who he doesn’t like to save his own life. Katisha brushes off Ko-Ko’s love words at first, but gradually she accepts his proposal. Nanki-Poo emerges in front of Mikado, and Katisha explains the state and begs for their lives. Mikado takes in the situation, saying, “I see. Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory!”

Well, how and what is insulting Japan? Even the names of all characters do not sound like Japanese at all. The costumes and properties, of course, are inspired Japanese culture, but the characters’ languages and behaviors are very different from Japanese, especially in the setting time. All music except the one I introduced at the beginning of this article is totally European. The scenes on stage is not Japan’s at all, it is a British satire in the 19th Century.

The DVD I saw mainly in the class (actually, we saw six versions: two of American, Australian, British, Canadian, and Japanese) was performed in the U.K. in 1966. The D’Oyly Carte version. Actors’ performances were, of course, wonderful, the setting was beautiful, all of the music composed by Sullivan was awesome, and all of lines actors say were full of humor and fantastic. I think Gilbert, the writer, was genius. I hope many Japanese will see and enjoy the opera without prejudice and feeling slighted. There is no disgrace to Japan. It is a Victorian political and social satire under the setting of imaginary Japan. The Mikado is a superb art made by two geniuses Gilbert and Sullivan.

Mikado [DVD] [Import]