Saturday, December 27, 2008


I've commented on the collisions of cultures earlier (in GYPSY TROUBADOUR), but they reach new heights in MAID IN JAPAN (1932), by Helen Stilwell and Margaret Gatwood, edited by Emil Soderstrom and with cover art by Donn Crane. As usual, the Americans are in the middle of it, making havoc for everyone until a rather surprising (and utterly unanticipated) deus ex machina.

We're in the gardens of Hirohito, Lord Keeper of the Seal. A number of young ladies of the court are enjoying the evening air when a pair of salesmen from the US barge in, giving their spiel. What are they selling, you might ask? Suspenders, I reply -- something about as useful to the Japanese of that time as bathing suits are to Eskimos.

And it's right here that the show's gimmick kicks in: when talking amongst themselves, the Japanese speak perfectly good English. A little stilted, perhaps, but clear and understandable. Have them talk to the Americans, and suddenly we're in the realm of "no tickee no washee!" And as if that werent enough, Bill (one of the salespeople) cant tell the difference between men and women here ("They all wear skirts!") so he decides:

If you cant tell what gender it is, give it a pair anyway!

Ah, the Ugly American. Well, here's the other problem: legally, they cant sell their suspenders to the Japanese until each product is stamped "Made in Japan". Even though they arent, that could have been easily changed by passing a few discrete Yankee dollars around in exchange for a permit from (you guessed it) the Lord Keeper of the Seal. But that would be too easy, right? Nope, here Tom (the other salesman) has fallen for Hirohito's daughter Hanano, and she for him. But she's promised to Prince Matsuo, who's apparently a bit long in the tooth (which means he's probably over 30). Still, her attendant Lototo has arranged secret meetings between her and Tom but now insists these stop.

This romantic interlude is interrupted by an offstage crash! It seems Bill has gotten himself in an accident with a rickshaw driver.

Ive subwayed through big towns
Ive ridden to the hounds
Ive airplaned over big hills
Ive even waded rills
But I never really knew
What thrills might be
Until one day in old Japan
A coolie tempted me

Oh, Jinny Jinny rikishaw
Youve made my bones all sore and raw
Oh wont you listen to my plea
The way you act is killing me
The streets go up and down
The houses spin around
The river's in the air
And stars are everywhere
Oh Jinny Jinny rikishaw
I guess you're quite outside the law
But I'll get even with you yet
American man he wont forget
And youll get taken for a ride
't will be the end of Jinny Jinny rikishaw!

Bill pretty much steps deep into it by telling Hanano why he and Tom are there in Japan and the problems with selling the suspenders without a proper seal. Before Tom can stop him, Bill tells Hanano that this is why Tom asked the ambassador to introduce him to her... news that Hanano doesnt take very well, as you might guess.

But it seems one of Hanano's friends, Toshi, wants to help "handsome nice American men": her father apparently knows some great secret about Hanano. Bill agrees (even though he's not sure what he's agreeing to), and she exits only seconds before Peggie, Tom's sister and Bill's fiancée, catches him. He tells her she has nothing to worry about, that it's only Tom that's in danger, but that can wait while they exit to spend some quality time together.

Tom and Hanano reconcile, but Hirohito catches them, and is he upset or what... Despite Tom and Hanano's pleas, he decides she's to marry Matsuo that very night and Tom has to leave the city. The lovers have one more little love song, and just as Tom is about to leave, Lototo tells him to hide: Matsuo is coming! He's even less impressed when he finds out his intended is in love with someone else, so he orders Tom taken away and thrown into a dungeon. As Tom is pulled off by guards, Matsuo cackles and rubs his hands in Simon-Legree-style enjoyment.

Act Two starts later that night, during the Festival of the Full Moon. Peggie is distraught that her brother is in prison, but Bill cheers her up with a patriotic little ditty about how great the US compared to Japan, a number so apparently infectious that the chorus (all Japanese, remember) join in.

Hirohito and Matsuo find Hanano and tell her it's time -- and to ensure her complete loyalty to Matsuo, Hirohito has ordered Tom's execution... but not before he's forced to watch her marriage. Matsuo twirls his moustache as Hanano makes one last plea even as Tom is tied to the tracks and --

Wait. Sorry. Wrong melodrama. Anyway, it's all getting a bit too close to crunch time when Toshi's father appears:

Now many years ago
A certain lord I know
Did me a serious wrong
Said I, "It wont be long
Ere you'll regret this deed."
To which he gave no heed
But now the time has come
My vengeance has begun

Hirohito starts to squirm a bit and orders the man taken away, but before the guards can do so, Toshi's father declares that Hanano is not Hirohito's daughter! She was left, as an infant, on a shrine to Buddha after her real father, one John Barlow, an American missionary, died in an earthquake in Nagano. Hanano forgives her pseudo-father, tells Matsuo to take a hike, and starts packing for a wedding in the good ol' USA.

But what about the suspenders, you ask? Hirohito tries to remain firm, but Bill threatens him with "some of our government's international lawyers", and he caves, agreeing to turn American-made suspenders into ones "maid in Japan"...


Musically, Gatwood cant decide whether she wants to attempt Japanese, Chinese, or just one-size-fits-all "Oriental" music that freely mixes the first two with a smattering of Indian and Middle Eastern. The rest -- the standard ballad, the quasi-comic song, even the temple dance -- are all just generic song styling, with no real themes to hold everything together. Whatever "editing" Soderstrom did, it didnt seem to help.

But just pull back a bit and think. Granted, these works are all fantasies and nothing more. People fall in love and decide to get married within the two-hour performance span: that's not unusual. Neither is it all that unusual to have some kind of last-minute revelation that the hero or heroine that we thought was impoverished actually turns out to be the heir/heiress to a huge estate. In that regard, I can forgive the plot resolution how she's not really Japanese but really American: it's well within the accepted bounds of the 30s high school musical.

But MAID IN JAPAN has a slightly bigger perceptual problem. I mean, okay, if Hanano is an American, wouldnt she look... well... not Japanese? Wasnt anyone suspicious that she looked... well, different? I mean, not even her American boy friend could tell -- so what does that say about how attentive he is? Truly, this has me curious. She's eighteen (I think: the script's not specific), and she never had an inkling that something might be a little wrong, in all those years of growing up with her Japanese father and her Japanese friends, all of whom never saw anything unusual about her. Fascinating. A director in the 30s would just shrug his shoulders and say, "Yeah, well, who cares?" But I'd really love to know how the modern director, whose audiences are slightly more aware of such inconsistencies, would get around something like that.

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