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The Japan of Pure Invention

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado

2010
Author:

Josephine Lee

The Japan of Pure Invention

What the lightest of operas reveals about racial images and practices

Long before Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado presented its own distinctive version of Japan. Tracing the history of The Mikado’s performances from Victorian times to the present, Josephine Lee reveals the continuing viability of the play’s surprisingly complex racial dynamics as they have been adapted to different times and settings.

In this important and deeply researched study, Josephine Lee illuminates the long career of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Reading the widest range of the operetta’s productions over the past hundred and twenty-five years, from its origins in Britain to African American yellowface productions to Japanese and to Asian American versions, Lee brilliantly shows how The Mikado is implicated in the complex webs of racial formation wherever and whenever it is performed. Although a serious critique of The Mikado’s racial history, The Japan of Pure Invention is a lively and generous read.

Robert Lee, author of Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture

Long before Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, long before Barthes explicated his empire of signs, even before Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado presented its own distinctive version of Japan. Set in a fictional town called Titipu and populated by characters named Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, and Pooh-Bah, the opera has remained popular since its premiere in 1885.

Tracing the history of The Mikado’s performances from Victorian times to the present, Josephine Lee reveals the continuing viability of the play’s surprisingly complex racial dynamics as they have been adapted to different times and settings. Lee connects yellowface performance to blackface minstrelsy, showing how productions of the 1938–39 Swing Mikado and Hot Mikado, among others, were used to promote African American racial uplift. She also looks at a host of contemporary productions and adaptations, including Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy and performances of The Mikado in Japan, to reflect on anxieties about race as they are articulated through new visions of the town of Titipu.

The Mikado creates racial fantasies, draws audience members into them, and deftly weaves them into cultural memory. For countless people who had never been to Japan, The Mikado served as the basis for imagining what ‘Japanese’ was.

The Japan of Pure Invention

Josephine Lee is associate professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota. She is author of Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage and coeditor (with Imogene Lim and Yuko Matsukawa) of Re/Collecting Early Asian America: Essays in Culture History.

The Japan of Pure Invention

In this important and deeply researched study, Josephine Lee illuminates the long career of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Reading the widest range of the operetta’s productions over the past hundred and twenty-five years, from its origins in Britain to African American yellowface productions to Japanese and to Asian American versions, Lee brilliantly shows how The Mikado is implicated in the complex webs of racial formation wherever and whenever it is performed. Although a serious critique of The Mikado’s racial history, The Japan of Pure Invention is a lively and generous read.

Robert Lee, author of Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture

The Japan of Pure Invention not only sheds new light on a seemingly familiar ‘old chestnut,’ it raises new possibilities for understanding the endurance of orientalism in relation to both whiteness and blackness.

Karen Shimakawa, author of National Abjection: The Asian American Body on Stage

The Japan of Pure Invention is a thought-provoking inquiry that forces us to recognize the complexity of racial dynamics of the stage.

The Santa Fe New Mexican

Josephine Lee’s book valuably complicates blanket accounts of a generic Victorian Orientalism.

Studies in English Literature

Consistently thought-provoking.

Studies in Musical Theatre

Lee allows The Mikado its places both in history and in critical, academic consideration as an object worthy of more intense investigation. Lee neither apologizes for nor vilifies the myriad inaccuracies of the opera, but rather accepts the work as a fantasy capable of showing us more about the times of its productions and its audience—their expectations, their imaginations, their tolerances, and their limitations—than many other examples of either pure historical research or cross-cultural contact could. For this, Lee’s work deserves attention.

Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies

Lee’s book is the first to examine the opera’s production history in order to provide a serious critique of the racial fantasies that the opera has disseminated in its ‘Japan of pure invention’ throughout the world.

Theatre Journal

The cultural importance of musical drama as a fin-de-sie`cle theatrical genre is explored in Josephine Lee’s The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’, which examines the history of the operetta from its London premiere at the Savoy Theatre in 1885 to more recent productions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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