Is The Mikado racist?

NZ Opera is currently staging a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Mikado (which I’ve reviewed here). It was written in the 1800s as a satire on British high society, but set in Japan so that the satire could be more biting (they were limits to what you could say directly about Victorian England) and because it can be easier to examine certain traits if they are presented in a different setting.

For decades, the show was performed by white actors made up to look like Japanese people. That ‘yellowface’ tradition has largely been dropped, just as ‘blackface’ has become universally unacceptable, although in productions white actors still often wear Japanese-style wigs and costumes.

The controversy now is about a couple of things: whether you can have white people playing Japanese people at all, whether there is something inherently offensive in the piece regardless of who the actors are, and how you navigate all these problems in the 21st century. It’s clearly not straightforward. A production in Seattle was cancelled a couple of years ago after the local Asian community objected, and something similar has recently happened in New York.

I certainly don’t think that shows like The Mikado can or should be banned. Most historic Western art dealing with other cultures has racist elements; and virtually everything written up until the 1980s, and lots after it, portrays women in a light that is sexist in some way. Staging only work that’s in accordance with modern sensibilities would require us to erase most of past art – which would be an incalculable loss.

But there are still very difficult issues to grapple with, because every portrayal of a person (or ethnicity) has messages embedded in it, makes a statement about that person. What excuse is there to put things out into the world that are offensive or racist? Defenders of The Mikado argue that it doesn’t do that, because the characters are not really ‘Japanese’ but stand-ins for British characters. Unfortunately for them, that reasoning doesn’t hold up, as this post explains:

Defenders of The Mikado … argue [it] is not intended to be read as a reflection of the real Japan, and therefore permits, they contend, the play’s use of racialized caricature. Yet, in the same breath, they will also argue that steps have been taken to ensure that their props and makeup appear to be authentically Japanese. … These two arguments contradict one another: The Mikado’s Japan cannot simultaneously be intended to be read as a totally imaginary, Japanese-inspired place that isn’t actually Japan, while also being — in the eyes of the players — as “authentically” Japanese as possible. Either The Mikado is intended to be read as Japan (which, unlike other Gilbert & Sullivan settings, is an actual place), or it is not. Gilbert & Sullivan supporters cannot have it both ways.

So the show clearly is set in Japan. Is that problematic? On one level, you have white people playing Japanese people; and if it would be unacceptable to ‘black up’ to play Othello, say, why is it OK to put on quasi-Japanese costumes to play Japanese people?

On another level, nothing I heard in the production on Saturday night offended me. The lyrics didn’t seem to contain any heavily stereotypical views of Japanese people. And the acting didn’t (as far as I could see) draw on offensive, Orientalist ideas about traits of Japanese people. The characters, loosely speaking, felt like British people who happened to be wearing partially Japanese outfits. It’s also worth noting that representatives of New Zealand’s Japanese community don’t seem to find anything offensive in the show.

And yet … there were things like the female chorus all dressed up in hyper-sexualised schoolgirl uniforms. This kind of dress does, to outsiders like me, seem to be part of Japanese culture. But can outsiders ever really know? There is a huge danger here, which is that by looking at a culture from the outside, and not understanding it fully, it is very easy to take a part of it out of context, portray it in an inaccurate light, and generally reinforce inaccurate stereotypes. I – and others – have a suspicion that the schoolgirl uniforms were doing just that (although I’m not fully qualified to comment). There were also two (older) characters in traditional Japanese costumes with whited-out faces, which raises the problems mentioned above.

This also gets us into deeper waters around appropriation – the idea that anyone from the powerful West writing about another culture will be somehow appropriating or taking it, will be saying something about another culture that they do not have the right to say, articulating the narrative of that culture when only people from that culture have the right to express how they really are. (If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, think about how you as an individual feel when someone else tells your life story for you, usually inaccurately.)

I think these are valid concerns. But again, I don’t think this means that we abandon the idea of writing about other cultures. Obviously, if we only wrote from our own cultural perspective, I could literally only write fiction (if I did write fiction, which I don’t) about 30-something white men from New Zealand; and art would in general become incredibly limited.

Fortunately, there is a sensible way out of the impasse, as described by novelists from non-Anglo cultures themselves in this excellent Guardian interview. It is very simple: do your research. You can write about other cultures, but make sure you are immersed in them and are not using them for your own purposes or reinforcing stereotypes.

Of course, this is a solution for new art. But what do we do about new productions of old art? The traditional opera approach is that one can change the setting, but not much else. But I’m not sure that holds. Indeed, this American company fully renewed The Mikado, by changing the setting to Milan and eliminating all references to Japan. Since the setting in ‘Japan’ was always a device, this doesn’t damage the show at all, and in fact has won plaudits from art critics and the local Asian community. In any case, The Mikado has always been updated in parts: the ‘list’ aria is frequently rewritten to include topical jokes. Clearly the text is already not sacrosanct, so there’s no reason not to change it further. Let the fantastic, hilarious, inventive satire of The Mikado shine through, while eliminating the problematic aspects. That sounds like a win-win to me. (People might then wonder why the play has a Japanese name, but then nothing’s perfect.)

In summary: I didn’t find NZ Opera’s production of The Mikado massively offensive, but I think it was in dangerous waters nonetheless, and I have mixed, complex feelings about the whole endeavour. (I’m far from an expert cultural critic, but was reviewing the show, and so felt I had to confront the issues as best I could.) At the very least, I think NZ Opera needs to be engaging with these issues – and it’s worrying that the programme for the show makes absolutely no acknowledgement of them, even though they are convulsing opera companies in other countries. The New Zealand opera world needs to be free to present the great things it possesses, but it also needs to engage with the real concerns of the twenty-first century – something it seems not to be doing.

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