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Nikkei View

It’s time to take the offensive yellowface of “The Mikado” off the stage

I recently blogged about a video produced by the City of Los Angeles—using taxpayer money—that was originally produced with good intentions: explaining the importance of recycling water. But to make its point, the video used a ghastly, stereotypical caricature of geishas played by non-Asians with painted faces wearing kimonos, including one played by a non-Asian man. Of course, they spoke in “ching-chong” Japanesey accents.

It’s disturbing that it’s OK even in 2013 to caricature Asians with the most shallow racial stereotypes—ones that have been used to depict us for 150 years.

There’s a long tradition in Hollywood and show business in general of “yellowface”—non-Asians (usually Caucasians) cast as Asians. The most egregious example is probably the horrid character of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which Mickey Rooney played the part to the hilt with buck teeth, thick glasses, squinty eyes, and a terrible accent.

But wait, there’s more! He played a perverted letch of a photographer who keeps trying to shoot pictures of his downstairs neighbor Holly Golightly (imagine this name pronounced in a horrible fake Japanese accent), played by Audrey Hepburn.

There are many, many examples of yellowface going back to Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando playing Chinese and Japanese characters with their eyes taped back in classic films such as Dragon Seed and Tea House of the August Moon, all the way to last year’s big-budget sci-fi flick Cloud Atlas, in which Hugo Weaving (of Matrix and Lord of the Rings fame) was among the cast who played both white and Asian parts, with hideously phony-looking makeup.

It’s not just on the big screen. Yellowface has also been a tradition on the stage, and I happened to see two plays recently that used elements of the practice, with varying results.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous 1885 comic opera The Mikado is known for its social satire; the musical pokes fun at British politics and society by using Japan as the setting for its wacky love story.

But the Japan it portrays is the Japan that people in the late 1800s fantasized about: exotic, utterly foreign, and just plain strange. To ensure that it only depicts simpleminded stereotypes, W.S. Gilbert based the play on a fictional Japan that had just been opened to Western commerce, but he didn’t bother to do any research to make his portrayal of Japanese culture realistic at all.

Instead, he named the village where The Mikado takes place “Titipu” and gave his characters improbable names such as “Nanki-poo” and “Yum-Yum.”

The acclaimed New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (shown above) brought The Mikado to Denver for two performances at the University of Denver’s Newman Canter a few weeks ago, with updated lyrics to songs that made fun of Colorado’s legalized marijuana and other contemporary news items.

The social and political commentary was in the grand G&S tradition. But even though the characters at least spoke in British accents (which is how the play is usually produced) instead of horrible Japanese ones, it was difficult for me to get past the exoticized Japanese setting, cheesy fake kimonos-on-acid costumes, and of course, the horrid yellowface.

Honestly, I thought for all it mattered, the play could have been set on Navi, the planet on which the sci-fi film Avatar took place. For Gilbert and Sullivan, Japan in the late 1800s was as alien as a fictional, faraway planet would be to us. So for anyone considering producing this now-outdated play (the music was utterly forgettable, by the way), drop the fake Japan and go for a place that is modern and alien, which won’t offend any ethnicity (unless you’re a blue-skinned Navian who’d take offense).

There have been some protestations over The Mikado’s yellowface, a book written about Gilbert’s use of Japan, and a funny satire for stage and adapted to film called The Mikado Project. But most people continue to blindly attend the The Mikado and appreciate it as high art.

The following week I attended one of the final performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, an all-American musical about U.S. military soldiers, sailors, and nurses on a Pacific Island during the waning days of WWII. The play was originally produced in 1949 on Broadway, and it was turned into a hit movie in 1958 and remade in 2001. This production was by the local Performance Now Theatre Company, at the Lakewood Cultural Center.

Some of the characters, including a Tongan woman who falls in love with a G.I., was played by a Caucasian woman but she didn’t have any spoken lines so she didn’t need to make a cheap imitation of a Polynesian accent. Her mother, Bloody Mary, was played by Janell Kim who spoke in an exaggerated Asian, not Polynesian, accent but she’s a talented singer and actor, who most recently was in a local production of Joy Luck Club.

The “yellowface” in South Pacific was incidental, and I assume the result of the small pool of Asian and Pacific Islander actors in the area. Maybe the production could have featured more accurate ethnic actors, but the casting didn’t bother me. Unlike The Mikado, the South Pacific setting of this play is an important part of the narrative.

After all, the main point of the musical is to criticize racism—a pretty progressive idea for 1949, when it originally opened. People probably remember songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i” and “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair,” but the keynote of the book is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” about the two main protagonists and their racial inhibitions: the nurse who falls in love with a Frenchman but is put off by the fact that he has two children by a native woman who died, and the G.I. who turns away from the Tongan woman he loves because of how others will think.

I enjoyed South Pacific, but couldn’t wait for The Mikado to end. We need to have some perspective on “classic” theater and judge them by contemporary standards if we’re going to perform them today. As far as I’m concerned, just because it was by Gilbert and Sullivan and is a “classic” work of theater from over a century ago doesn’t make The Mikado appropriate for today.

I’d compare The Mikado to blackface minstrelsy. Although blackface minstrelsy—a form of musical revue where white performers would smear burnt cork or shoe polish on their face and hands and play broadly stereotyped black characters—was one of the most popular forms of entertainment throughout much of the 1800s and well into the 29th century (Al Jolson famously sang “Mammy” in blackface in The Jazz Singer, a 1927 Hollywood film that’s significant as the first “talkie” to feature a synchronized dialogue soundtrack), it’s hard to imagine a theater troupe touring the country today doing a black minstrel routine…, unless it’s to make a point about the racism of blackface.

Likewise, I think it’s time to put The Mikado on the shelf—or, if someone wants to produce it, have enough guts and cultural sensitivity to set the musical on another planet. Then in a century, the inhabitants of that planet can complain about the stereotypes and force another evolution. The yellowface of the The Mikado is now as out of place as the blackface of The Jazz Singer.

Art and pop culture aren’t static, any more than social conventions are static. We shouldn’t continue to accept unacceptable depictions of people just because the play is a “classic” from long ago.

>> Here’s a promotional video of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of The Mikado

>> And here’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy”—would someone reproduce this in a film or on a stage today?

>> And here’s the trailer for The Mikado Project, which seems to me to be the best way to deal with the play.


*This article was originally published on Gil Asakawa’s blog, The Nikkei View on May 16, 2013.

© 2013 Gil Asakawa

arts culture racism south pacific stereotypes the mikado yellowface

About this series

This series presents selections from Gil Asakawa’s “Nikkei View: The Asian American Blog,” which presents a Japanese American perspective on pop culture, media, and politics.

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