This month, the Royal Albert Hall in London celebrates the work of Puccini with a production of Madame Butterfly. This famous opera, written in 1904 has many merits as a piece of music but also raises interesting questions about how the west and America in particular perceive and interpret Japanese culture.
The plot tells of the unequal love affair between a fifteen year old Japanese girl and an American sailor. The American, Pinkerton, is portrayed throughout as a cynical exploiter of the girl’s innocence and simple devotion. The girl, Cio Cio San, is presented as compliant and obedient, sexually available and so devoted to the foreigner that she turns her back upon her own culture and religion, embracing the alien values of the American. Inevitably Pinkerton returns to his own country after a wedding that he does not recognise as binding, leaving the young girl pregnant. He returns three years later with his American wife. Cio Cio San’s loyalty is betrayed, her child taken from her by the Pinkertons and she dies by her own hand in despair using her father’s dagger which bears the inscription: “Who cannot live with honour must die with honour.”
After the enforced easing of trade restrictions in the 1860’s, Europe and America were awash with all things Japanese. In popular culture the geisha became a persistent motif in advertising, novellas and photography; or rather, an insipid projection of how Westerners imagined the geisha. Of course in reality, they could be ambitious, strong, manipulative… not called “castle-topplers” for nothing! But this popular impression of Asian women was linked also to a national perception of Japan itself as supine, decadent and compliant. In popular culture the Western re-imagining of the geisha became synonymous with an entire nation.
It is interesting that the equally strong and socially more persuasive culture of the samurai – warlike, fierce, unbreakable and uniquely masculine – took so long to enter the wider imagination of the west. Not until the Second World War was the West forced to re-evaluate its perceptions of masculine Japan. But it is also noticeable how the modern media continues to see Asian women as compliant and available. They are still represented as obliging geisha (a popular theme even today for Hollywood movies and blockbuster novels) or else as bobby-socked schoolgirls or swooning air hostesses.
It’s hard not to read Madame Butterfly as a paradigm of heavy handed American imperialism. Puccini portrays Pinkerton as every bit the boorish colonial that we associate with British stereotypes a century earlier and the culture he casually crushes is eloquently and pathetically rendered in his wilting mail order bride of a few weeks.
I think this is why I like Kunichika’s 36 Good and Evil Beauties so much. There are no Cio Cio Sans in his prints of this series. There is the murderous bandit Queen Omatsu and the vampire cat-woman Otoyo and there are brave and loyal women of great virtue and great ferocity but none of the stereotypes that Mister Pinkerton might have imagined he could conquer had he been given such insight.