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]


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