In his legendary account of his travels, Marco Polo described Japan — which he had never actually visited, as a land of gold and magic, inhabited by devilish idol-worshipers and cannibals. Nearly 750 years after Polo’s legendary sojourn in the Orient, the West’s knowledge of Japan has grown significantly — as has its interest in the tiny island nation. In the aftermath of multiple devastating natural disasters, Japan has garnered the attention and aid of Western nations more than ever. In the midst of these recent events, this weekend the University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society presents “The Mikado,” a work that reflects the West’s deep-rooted fascination with Japanese culture.
Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., tomorrow and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Set in imperial Japan, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 operetta is a madcap work of satire driven by comedic love-triangles, mistaken identities and ridiculously impossible legal loopholes. In writing this outrageous work, Gilbert and Sullivan were hoping to capitalize on Victorian England’s recent craze for Japanese art and culture. Much of the inspiration for “The Mikado” came from a Japanese village exhibition in Knightsbridge, London, where the two witnessed typical aspects of Japanese life.
But while the characters in “The Mikado” may wear kimonos and wave paper fans, the Japanese setting is actually a thinly veiled façade hiding the true target of Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire.
“The more that you look at ‘The Mikado,’ the more you realize that, really, it has nothing to do with Japan,” said director Joshua Borths, a junior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “It uses the Japanese society to comment on what’s true in British society.”
By setting their work in a distant and exotic locale, Gilbert and Sullivan were able to poke fun at the corruption and hypocrisy of Victorian society from a safe distance. Broths pointed out that Shakespeare also used this technique in plays like “The Tempest” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Shakespeare set his most biting satires further away from London,” Borths said. “He used mythical places or places far away in order to remove the immediacy of the themes. And that’s true in (‘The Mikado’) as well.”
Though “The Mikado” has little to do with Japan besides its setting, Borths — who lived in Tokyo as a child, sought to include realistic elements of Japanese culture in his production without sacrificing the work’s exoticism and fairytale atmosphere.
“I really wanted to create a very different world from our everyday,” he said. “So I did a lot of research on Japanese theatrical tradition. We use some of the conventions of Noh theater, Bunraku, which is puppetry — we have a puppetry scene — and especially Kabuki.”
In his research on Kabuki — a popular Japanese theatrical form developed in the 17th century — Borths found many similarities between it and comic operetta.
“(Kabuki) became a form of theater for everyday people,” he said. “It was one of the only areas in a highly structured, hierarchical society that you could ridicule the upper class. … There’s an emphasis on spectacle and on oratory humor. And if that’s not operetta, I don’t know what is.”
With its unique incorporation of Japanese theatrical traditions, Borths’s production demonstrates that not only has our knowledge of Japan changed since the bygone days of Marco Polo or even Gilbert and Sullivan, but our interest in the nation has grown tremendously.