If “Asian face” isn’t bad enough, how about names like Nanki-Poo and Yum Yum?
Mike Leigh’s 1999 film Topsy-Turvy reenacts Gilbert and Sullivan’s staging of The Mikado, the 1885 comic opera set inJapan. The original work achieved considerable authenticity in some Japanese details, which indicates a respectful attitude toward the culture, but it also appears to debase the Japanese, especially with an undignified depiction of the Emperor. Furthermore, the actors’ “Asian face” seems as disturbing as blackface. This odd mixture of homage and mockery can leave the viewer uncertain about Gilbert and Sullivan’s attitudes toward Japan. A Topsy-Turvy viewer might also wonder why Leigh has resurrected an opera that seems offensive today.
Topsy-Turvy received widespread critical acclaim, garnering Oscar nominations for makeup, costume design, art direction, and original screenplay, and winning in the first two categories. The New Yorker called Topsy-Turvy “one of the greatest tributes ever paid to British civilization at its meridian hour” and “a triumph from start to finish.” Entertainment Weekly lauded even the off-putting aspects: “You’re likely to be moved to tears, amazed that the sight of actors in exaggerated Asian-face makeup singing ‘For He’s Gone and Married Yum-Yum’ could communicate such bravery and optimism.”
Although Leigh’s witty, thorough effort deserves praise, it’s astounding that most critics hyped it, overlooking such flaws as its self-indulgent length and the problematic opera at its core. Most critics don’t blindly adulate Leigh’s work. It’s more plausible that they reflexively kowtowed to the Mikado creators, who have had a longtime cult following (with a Gilbert & Sullivan Society, a quarterly journal, and groupies who know every lyric). Fans have revered The Mikado since its inception, when “its songs were sung everywhere; ladies adopted Mikado fashions and walked in a delicate, Japanese way; [and] … the houses of the rich were even equipped with Mikado rooms.” Leigh’s admiration for Gilbert and Sullivan and for the opera that reinvigorated their foundering partnership clearly motivated Topsy-Turvy, which brings these men to life with meticulous accuracy. Film critics may have been swept up in this lovefest.
For others, the Japanese content may be both seductive and repulsive. On the plus side, the film lingers over Gilbert’s visit to a Japanese exhibition in London (established to improve English-Japanese relations). Transfixed, Gilbert observes wool spinning, calligraphic lettering, and sword fighting, as well as performances of music, dance, and Noh drama. He pronounces the exhibit “entrancing” and promptly dreams up The Mikado. In reality, Gilbert didn’t write the opera until he had educated himself more: he frequented the exhibition, read up on Japan’s history, and studied Japanese artworks. Leigh omits these facts but shows one way in which Gilbert strove for authenticity: he hired Japanese to teach the actors how to shuffle, giggle behind fans, and snap fans open and shut in a Japanese way.
As the Mikado production takes shape within Topsy-Turvy, filmgoers get more authentic tastes of Japan. A gong, cymbals, a triangle, and a timpani, as well as the pentatonic scale, create a sense of the Far East. The chorus sings “Miya Sama” (a Japanese war song from 1868) and uses some Japanese words, which occasionally make sense but otherwise translate nonsensically. The gorgeous kimonos look exactly right (just as they did in Gilbert’s original production).
Although this diligent re-creation of Japanese details seems respectful – even worshipful – of the culture, the tribute comes intermingled with insults. Gilbert humiliates the character of the Mikado (the antiquated term for Emperor), portraying him as a rigid bureaucrat intent on enforcing silly laws. Devoid of self-awareness, he calls himself the most humane Mikado ever to rule Japan but fantasizes about torture and execution. Although he brags that all Japanese obey him, an elderly, unattractive woman incites the chorus to bow down to her instead of him. Worst of all, as Leigh’s production shows, the obese Mikado dances like an elephant, kicking out his legs in jester style and contorting his face with the effort. Meanwhile, an oversized pigtail bobs above his head like a detached rooster’s comb. The opera lampoons a man once regarded in Japan as a living god.
Aside from insults to the Mikado, the actors’ gestural mimicry makes one cringe, especially when the three maids giggle. With infantile names like Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, the Japanese come across like munchkins. The libretto’s first words sound especially dehumanizing: “We are gentleman of Japan: On many a vase and jar – On many a screen and fan … Our attitude’s queer and quaint.” In both Leigh’s film and the 1885 production, the Caucasian actors have powdered their faces chalk-white, painted on comically rosy cheeks, and used eyeliner to appear Japanese. Any attempt to make a white cast look Japanese starts feeling like a burlesque of race.
If the opera disturbs modern viewers, they are not alone; Mikado productions have ruffled feathers from the beginning. In 1885, a Japanese ambassador to England objected that the piece ridiculed his ruler. The British government banned Mikado performances for six weeks in 1907, fearing that the play might offend the Crown Prince Fushimi on his state visit. In 1909, Japanese naval officers objected to the opera, causing its temporary removal from the Savoy Theatre’s repertoire. At that time, a British consul in Japan called for a permanent ban, deeming The Mikado “an insult to the most sacred sentiments of the Japanese, galling and humiliating in every way.” Similarly, a former secretary to the British legation in Tokyo called the opera’s title “most offensive to the feelings of every Japanese, whatever disclaimer any individual Japanese, actuated by the national somewhat exaggerated politeness, may … make.” Noting the Mikado‘s religious role, he asked how Roman Catholics would feel if the Pope were burlesqued.
But other people took no offense, including Prince Komatsa, who saw an 1886 production in London. The Japanese in the London exhibition reportedly felt gratified to have inspired England’s greatest librettist with The Mikado. Most British critics and playgoers found The Mikado harmless and thought the 1907 ban ridiculous. They argued that the opera satirized Britain, not Japan, and that anyone supporting the ban had missed this crucial point. Critics and audiences adored the work, especially the mimicked mannerisms.
It makes sense that Brits had a mixed reaction to The Mikado, because Victorian England felt ambivalent about the Japanese. On the one hand, the English adored all things Japanese, importing 80 percent of Japan’s exports and snatching up its artwork, ceramics, and fabrics. During the exhibition, the sight of “‘small, graceful oriental figures’ gliding through the streets” heightened this Japanophilia. According to Isaac Asimov, Westerners thought the Japanese “the cutest things one could imagine,” especially the women with their kimonos, parasols, and fans. On the other hand, Victorian England was awash in imperialism, having acquired colonies around the globe. Brits regarded nonwhite foreigners with both benign paternalism and outright contempt. In 1876, George Eliot complained of the “contemptuous dictatorialness” and “dismissive superiority” that the English displayed toward all “orientals.”
Gilbert possessed such contempt in large doses, peppering lyrics with jokes about nonwhites and foreigners. But his dramatic intentions always governed his work far more than his personal attitudes did. He lived to entertain, whatever the cost to others’ feelings. Incorrigibly irreverent, Gilbert mocked everything, even England’s royal court. He wrote burlesques, a tradition in which dramatists ridicule serious subjects or elevate trivial ones, and he adored “topsy turvydom,” a technique in which “mankind seems to be walking on its head…. The fun consists in making everyone say and do exactly the opposite of what might be expected from them, considering their character and profession.” Hence, the all-important Mikado acts like a buffoon.
The disrespectful Gilbert strove for authenticity in Japanese details because he liked to construct perfectly realistic frames for his nonsensical interiors, thereby making the nonsense credible. He managed to mock things and treat them respectfully at the same time. Wanting his actors to do and say absurd things “with the most perfect earnestness and gravity,” Gilbert disliked “exaggeration in costume, make-up, or demeanour.” Asian face strayed far from naturalism, but Gilbert intended a realistic approximation here, not caricature. Compare this with blackface shows, in which actors who blacked up would leave the area around their lips white, creating the illusion of a grotesque enlargement.
Actually, Gilbert may have drawn his inspiration for Asian face from blackface shows, which proliferated in Victorian England. It makes sense for Gilbert to have drawn on a tradition whose dramatic intentions matched his own. An expert on blackface masking says it removed audiences “from time and place through disguise.” Similarly, Gilbert removed his Mikado audiences from Victorian England by immersing them in Japan. Blackface helped make “a statement more about what you were not than about race…. To black up was a way of assuming ‘the Other.'” Likewise, Mikado characters in Asian face served as “Others.” Gilbert did not burlesque the Japanese in terms of their race or culture so much as he depicted people who were not English.
Some critics say Gilbert used Japan to criticize England, projecting his country’s foibles onto a distant land and people, thereby encouraging audiences to think critically about English weaknesses. To what degree The Mikado actually pokes fun at England is a source of debate. According to some critics, the opera skewers the corruption of British bureaucracy. Others think it assails annoying habits of the English masses, such as singing badly and dyeing hair unconvincingly. A different critical camp finds little satirical content in The Mikado, as Victorian England was not terribly corrupt and as the libretto contains few topical references; these people consider the opera fun for fun’s sake.
Clearly, though, Gilbert did not satirize Japan itself. He set his opera there because it was fashionable, stimulating, and different, not because he had anything profound or hostile to express about the Japanese. One cannot know if Victorian audiences felt amused by the insults to the Japanese, but critics have attributed the opera’s extraordinary popularity to many other aspects, including Gilbert’s witty lyrics, Sullivan’s upbeat music, and the nonsensical gaiety. The costumes also created an unforgettable spectacle. In the end, both the creators and the audience seem to have been motivated more by Japanophilia than by anti-Japanese sentiments.
That still leaves one question unanswered: Why would Mike Leigh, known for his astute films about social issues, revive The Mikado, even though modern audiences might recoil from the content? As the opera rekindled Gilbert and Sullivan’s partnership and as their fans have treasured this opera most, it makes sense that Leigh’s tribute would center on The Mikado. There’s no obvious way in which he could have distanced himself from the material and commented on it ironically. But the film embraces the opera too enthusiastically, as if nothing had changed in 115 years. As this is untrue, Japanophile viewers of Topsy-Turvy may experience a large disconnect.
Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
Ian Bradley, ed. and intro., The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
W. A. Darlington, The World of Gilbert and Sullivan (New York: Crowell, 1950).
David Denby, “The Current Cinema,” New Yorker, Dec. 27, 1999, and Jan. 3, 2000.
Pierre Marie Filon, The English Stage: Being an Account of the Victorian Drama, trans. Frederic Whyte (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1897).
Michael Hardwick, The Osprey Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan (Reading, England: Osprey, 1972).
Christopher Hibbert, Gilbert and Sullivan and Their Victorian World (New York: American Heritage, 1976).
David Newsome, The Victorian World Picture: Perceptions and Introspections in an Age of Change(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997).
Harold Orel, Gilbert and Sullivan: Interviews and Recollections (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1994).
Lisa Schwarzbaum, “Smooth Operetta: The Lives and Works of Gilbert and Sullivan Get a Grand Staging in Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s Ovation-Worthy Biopic,” Entertainment Weekly, Jan. 14, 2000.
Audrey Williamson, Gilbert & Sullivan Opera: A New Assessment (New York: Macmillan, 1953).