Onoto Watanna and Her Japanese Work
Be at ease, brothers, Gilbert and Sullivan's Japanese comic operas, The Mikado and The Geisha, are not regarded in their own countries as serious attempts, but rather as merry-making extravaganzas as groundless and fantastically light as a summer mist fallen upon the lotos cups of Shinobazu Pond; they will not bring any misinformation whatever. Still it is rather gratifying to be informed that The Mikado was omitted from a general revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas. The telegram said: "The omission is connected with Prince Fushimi's visit, and Mr. Runciman, replying in the House of Commons to Mr. Kennedy, said that no representations had been received from Japan (of course not!) on the matter, but the Lord Chamberlain had withdrawn the license for the opera from all theatres including those of the provinces." I have no doubt that the English dramatic companies are sustaining quite heavy losses by that prohibition. And at the same time we cannot help feeling somewhat uncomfortable at being suspected of such extreme sensitiveness by the English government. (Their gentlemanly action, however, merits our thanks.) How irritated I was, I remember, on seeing the theatrical bills of The Mikado or The Geisha in America! In fact, when I first saw The Mikado at the Tivoli, a San Francisco playhouse, some fifteen years ago, I was highly indignant and even prepared a letter for the papers denouncing it. Gilbert and Sullivan had no other idea than to furnish amusement and a somewhat exotic demonstration in music and song; and the fact that their plays were billed under the general title "comic opera" should excuse any extravagance. Later, when I began to read the Japanese stories written by American writers (?) I felt the same indignation! I refer to the works of John Luther Long and Onoto Watanna. The saddest part about Miss Watanna is that she is still posing as a Japanese, a half caste at the least.
Onoto Watanna wrote a story called "A Japanese Nightingale" and it was dramatized and put on the stage by Klaw and Erlanger; I did not read it in the book, but I saw the play, and it was my first acquaintance with Watanna's Japanese work. Let me give you a brief synopsis of the scenes as I recall them.... [<19]
ACT. I.—Scene 1: Tea House on the Islet.
Scene 2. The Road to Tokyo.
(A month elapses.)
ACT. II.—Scene: In Bigelow's Cottage on the Hill of Kudan, overlooking Tokyo.
(Three weeks elapse.)
ACT. III.—Scene 1: Parlor of Private Suite, Hotel Imperial, Tokyo.
Scene 2: The Temple of Shiba. Festival of Lanterns and Dance of the Bon Odori.
ACT. IV—Scene: In Bigelow's Cottage, as in Act II.
I heard the Harusame music before the curtain rose. I promised
myself I should soon find myself in the poetic "tea-house on the islet"—how
could it be other than poetic, since it stands on the islet:—perhaps drinking
tea, perhaps listening to the whisper of a girl. My expectation, where was
it, when the curtain rose? Japanese girls? —no; geishas whose loveliness
is praised, however ugly they be—rushed in with a supposed-to-be Japanese song
and dance. Yes, it was a Japanese song with incorrect pronunciation.
And such a dance! Where did they get such a motion? And here comes
Ido, a nakodo. The Japanese Nakodo
is usually bald-headed and frequently spectacled, with a sweet melody in his
speech to begin with. I thought Ido might be a highwayman. How
villainous he looked! Most happily he was a villain as I found afterward.
If he wasn't he was a dead failure as a marriage-broker. I was perfectly
surp[r]ised to[<19] see Yuki appearing on a balcony. Look at her dancing
with the eternally same motion of her hands up and down. Where did she win
such a reputation as to be called the "Japanese Nightingale"? Listen to
her song! Why didn't she sing an American song and do an American dance,
since she must have an electric light over her face?
So it was in the wistaria season when this story happened. (It was the funniest thing to see the lotus flowers in a vase in Bigelow's cottage in the Second Act. The lotus i the flower of July, while the Wistaria comes in May. And the synopsis explained that a month elapsed between the scenes. If Bigelow's lotus were paper-made, it would never be used except in a Buddhist temple). Yuki made Bigelow swear by the Buddha, pointing to some idol. The funniest thing was that the idol was placed in a toro. And the idol wasn't the Buddha. It was an Obinzuru or one of the Rakans. And on the other side was a large red Torii. Shintoism and Buddhism (torii and idol) never go together. And we never swear by Buddha or by anything.
Another funny thing was that O Kayo San, Yuki's attendant, appeared wearing a wedding gown. Yes, a purple dress of Yuzen dye! Surely any Japanese servant would be envious of her, if she saw her in such happy clothes. On the contrary, how wretched O Kayo san looked! And when Yuki came out to meet Mr. Harker—why must he be a Californian, particularly, I should like to know?—and the jolly Theodosia, she wore an uchikaké in the house. No woman in Japan except a courtezan wears it nowadays. And then it is a winter garment. Remember, the scene must have taken place in July, because it was a month after the wistaria. Poor Yuki must have been perspiring. She must have been feeling dreadfully at having to exhibit her poor dancing. (The song this time was prettier than her song in the First Act.) The fortunate part of it was that Mr. Bige[l]ow was immensely delighted with her song and dancing.
I laughed to myself on observing that the Japanese house in Tokyo had a lamp which was undoubtedly bought from a certain Japanese store in Fifth Avenue—the lamp with a paper shade on which a flower is painted. We Japanese do not use such a thing in our homes. It was made in Japan, and is for sale only to Americans. Bigelow wore shoes in his house. He had many cushions—American cushions, thank God:—and I wondered where he put them. Not on the floor surely. No Japanese would put a cushion on the floor where you are stamping with your shoes.
Nekko appeared wearing the heaviest mid-winder clothes (look at his summer coat on top of them!) in the parlor of a private suite, Hotel Imperial. And Mr. Harker felt pretty hot with his proper sack-coat. Well, he was right as the month was June or July. And Mr. Nekko—is it a Japanese name? It doesn't mean anything if not a "cat"—must have been crazy to come in winter attire. Was he not a gentleman of high standing, though a villian? Oh, yes, he was one of the Imperial Council. He must have been in America and Europe quite often. Undoubtedly he should speak excellent English.
Mr. Harker was master of the situation with his pistol. I wonder really why he didn't hail from Texas or Arizona. I heartily congratulate him that he was so fortunate as to have a pistol at that moment. And Alas and Alas! The play turned out to be the most stupid melodrama. It was stupid enough already to reveal the whole plot in the second act. [<20] All the audience knew how the story would end without going any further.
I did not have the honor of an acquaintance with Onoto Watanna's original. I cannot say how much alike the play and book were. But I am sure the book of which W. D. Howells said: "There is a quite indescribable freshness in the art of it, which is like no other art except in the simplicity which is native to the best art everywhere," cannot be like the play which was presented. and again Mr. Howells said: "There is enough incident, but of the kind that is characterized and does not characterize. The charm, the delight, the supreme interest is in the personality of Yuki." Poor Miss Illington (the leading lady) did not have any chance to reveal Yuki's surpassing lovableness except by some ridiculous dancing and unintelligible singing which are not in the book doubtless.
The play seemed to me to fail as a spectacular attraction. And again, it failed in sentiment. There was an appealing love through the play, but the melodramatic addition killed the sincerity and sympathy accordingly. It was a poor mixture of comic opera and melodrama—geisha girls and also priests taking the parts of comic opera. Really and honestly I never saw such a sad show in my life as that exhibited in the "Temple of Shiba." What has a woman to do in a Japanese temple, I wished to know? Yuki was taking shelter in the temple. How absurd! Why didn't she go to a certain nunnery? Undoubtedly it was within the temple. The strangest things I have seen in the world were some four stationary stone lamps before the altar. There the geisha girls were going to dance the Bon Odori. It would be a scandalous event if the geishas should dance the Bon Odori in the Shiba temple. Listen to their song! Alas, it was the same song which Yuki sang on the balcony in the first act. So, our Japanese Nightingale was singing the Bon Odori song of July in May already. And the craziest thing was that all the priests joined in the chorus. [<21]
My second acquaintance with Watanna was in her The Love of
Azalea which was published quite many years ago. And today I have another
opportunity to renew my acquaintance with her work in A Japanese Blossom; that
acquaintance always made me sad. I wonder why she must write a Japanese
story as she does.
A Japanese Blossom is happily not much of a story. In the story we have Mr. Kurukawa who left his five children behind for America where he found his second wife in an American widow with two children, and to whom a new baby was born while he was still in America. He returns to Tokyo with his wife and three children, and he is there opposed by the children he left, and by his parents. His eldest Japanese boy called Gozo became a soldier from indignation, and because he hated to come in contact with his American mother. "You will enlist?" the grandfather looked at the flushed face of the young boy. "You are too young, my boy." "I can pass for much older," said Gozo, [<19] proudly. "You are but seventeen," said the grandfather, quietly. "Life would be unbearable here," said he, "with such a change in the family." So he became a soldier; this authoress does not know much of things Japanese; she can make any new Japanese custom and habit right on the spot when she needs them, and can put in everything fit for her purpose and fancy. We have a wistaria blooming in the book long before the cherry blossom. But that is nothing extraordinary. Here we have a Baby called Fuji who could swim like a fish at the early age of three. "First he would hold his breath, then gasp, then roar. Fuji's crying could never be stopped until a pail of water was thrown in the face of the enraged child." Poor Baby, he must have felt pretty uncomfortable. "Plum Blossom wore a corset outside her kimono. Some one had told her that this was the most important article of a barbarian woman's wardrobe, and the tighter it was the better. So the little Japanese girl had tied herself by the corset string to a post. By dint of hard pulling she had managed to encase her plump form so tightly that she could scarcely breathe. Iris, with hands clad in large kid gloves, was drawing on a pair of number five shoes. Her feet were those of the average American child of seven or eight years." Isn't it absurd? Today nearly every high-class Japanese lady knows something of Parisian fashions, and all the schoolgirls who put a ribbon in their hair are taught some English. "How de do! Ver' glad to see you two days. Thanzs you healt' is good. Most honorable welcome at Japan. Pray seated be and egscuse the most unworthy house of my fader." Does Watanna suppose we Japanese speak such English? If it is an English translation of Japanese, our people do speak such a pigeon language nowhere in Japan. We have in the book a pond, "the family pond, it should be explained, also the family bath-tub," in which the children take their bath. And the children in the book call their American mother "barbarian" or "foreign devil." Gozo who left his home for Port Arthur (the story takes place during the late war) wrote thus: "The barbarian female who has taken my mother's place is a witch—a fox woman—a devil! Otherwise how could she have worked upon my father's mind so soon to forget our mother." Somewhere "Daikoku" is said to be a god of giving things in general; one exclaims "the blessings of Shakra upon you," and I wonder what that Shakra means; and somewhere we read of the Shogu Lyesade. And you are presented with persimmons and oranges together upon the same table. "There is a general superstition in Japan that this desolate month (October) when the gods are all absent, will bring disaster to all who observe events connected with home joys." Now, where in Japan is such a superstition existing? You read in the book presently about "each omelette formed in a different pattern, as a chrysanthemum, a twig of pine tree, a plum blossom." And the geishas as little waitresses will bring you their samisen and make a special poem for you,—say, "one sen for each poem."
Mr. Kurukawa proceeds to the front in the ardor of patriotism when he returns to Japan with his American wife; and there at the front he finds his lost son Gozo. He was chronicled of his being killed on the battlefield, but it turned out that he was lying at Saseho (and yet he was not a naval officer at all); and in due time he and Gozo return to Tokyo, and join their family in Tokyo, and again make a happy family. Such is the story of A Japanese Blossom; and that title has nothing to do and does not mean anything at all. The book is one of the saddest literary creations which ever attempted to pass as a Japanese story.