This is the fifth in a series of articles analyzing the works of Stephen Sondheim, in preparation for his 80th birthday.
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical, PACIFIC OVERTURES, traces the opening of Japan to the West – from the Japanese perspective. By emphasizing the issues of isolation in Japanese culture, the musical’s characters view suicide – be it literal or metaphorical – as their only option.
Isolation is a significant theme in PACIFIC OVERTURES. At the start of the show, Japan is a nation entirely cut off from foreign contact, as foreigners are forbidden to set foot on Japanese ground. Its complete isolation is perfectly illustrated in “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea,” as the Reciter explains:
“We sit inside the screens
And contemplate the view
That’s painted on the screens
More beautiful than true.
Beyond the screens
That glide aside
Are further screens
That open wide
With scenes of screens like the ones that glide.
And no one presses in,
And no one glances out.”
Here, the isolation of Japan is compared to a group of people boxed in by beautifully painted screens. It is as though they’re trapped inside a prison whose walls depict an impossibly idyllic outside world. Once Japan regains contact with Westerners, there is still a very real sense of isolation – only it’s now cultural, rather than physical. This cultural isolation is evident in the character of Manjiro. Since he is the only Japanese character who has spent an extended period of time in America (and is therefore fairly Westernized), he does not completely belong with either the Japanese or the Americans at the start of the musical. Eventually, as Manjiro adopts Japanese culture, becoming a samurai supporting the Emperor, he continues to be culturally estranged. The Japan he comes to identify with is being phased out by those in power.
The idea of passivity as an isolating force is present throughout PACIFIC OVERTURES, particularly in the use of speech. The Reciter, in addition to narrating much of the story, often speaks for some of the other characters; for example, he speaks for Manjiro at the beginning of the musical, when he first arrives in Japan, and when Kayama discovers that Tamate has killed herself, the Reciter verbally mourns, while Kayama himself is silent. While Tamate speaks, she does not sing–”There Is No Other Way,” a song centered around Tamate, is sung by two “Observers,” who express her words and feelings for her. This theme is seen even more clearly through the Emperor, as the Shogun represents him and speaks for him until the very end of the play. The use of speech, therefore, symbolizes the disconnect these characters have with not only the people around them, but with also their own feelings. As a result, the characters in PACIFIC OVERTURES suffer from a deep, personal isolation.
“We serve white wine.
The house is far too small.
I killed a spider on the wall.
One of the servants thought it was a lucky sign.”
Kayama’s progression even ends in death. His former friend, Manjiro, kills him in the fight to preserve traditional Japan – the Japan Kayama has turned his back on.
Moreover, the opening of Japan itself can be seen as a kind of suicide, particularly the Emperor’s speech at the very end of the play, which he delivers dressed as “a nineteenth-century Western general.” “In the name of progress we will turn our backs on ancient ways,” the Emperor declares. “We will cast aside our feudal forms, eliminate all obstacles which hinder our development.” The song “Next!,” furthers the idea of pushing forward and ignoring the past and ignores the importance of incorporating the past into a modernized present. Consequently, the song posits that the Japanese willingly kill their own heritage as they become modernized. The image of the ensemble dressed in black -with each person indistinguishable from the next – emphasizes this perfectly, especially when contrasted with the image of Kayama and Tamate in their colorful traditional dress. By resolving to progress and become modern, the Emperor has vowed to exchange the uniqueness of Japanese culture for a generic kind of Westernization in which anything that is traditionally Japanese is left behind. The idea of a modernized Eastern state appears to be not even considered.
The isolation felt by the characters of PACIFIC OVERTURES is so absolute and pervasive that suicide – literal or metaphorical – becomes the only way for them to cope, even on a national level.