Conceived as a sort of Japanese playwright's version of an American musical about American influences on Japan, Pacific Overtures begins its journey to the present day in July 1853. Since the foreigners were driven from the island empire, explains the Reciter, there has been nothing to threaten the changeless cycle of their days. Elsewhere, wars are fought and machines are rumbling but in Nippon they plant rice, exchange bows and enjoy in peace and serenity.
But President Fillmore, determined to open up trade with Japan, has sent Commodore Perry across the Pacific, and. to the consternation of Lord Abe and the Shogun's other Councillors, US warships have been sighted at Okinawa. Kayama is appointed Prefect of the Police at Uraga to drive the Americans away - news which leaves Tamate, his wife, grief-stricken. As he leaves, she expresses her feelings in dance as two Observers describe the scene and reveal her thoughts in "There Is No Other Way". As a Fisherman, Merchant and other locals relate the sight of the "Four Black Dragons" roaring through the sea, an extravagant Oriental caricature of the USS Powhatan pulls into harbour: Commodore Perry announces that he must meet the Shogun within six days or else he will shell the city. Faced with this ultimatum the Shogun takes to his bed. Exasperated by his indecision, his Mother with elaborate courtesy, poisons him with "Chrysanthemum Tea."
With the Shogun dead, Kayama devises a plan by which the Americans, thanks to a covering of tatami mats and a raised Treaty House, can be received without having, technically, to set foot on Japanese soil. He and his aide the fisherman Manjiro set off for Uraga, forging a band of friendship through the exchange of "Poems". Already, though, events are moving beyond the control of the old order: the two men pass a Madam instructing her inexperienced Girls in the art of seduction as they prepare to "Welcome to Kanagawa" the foreign devils.
Commodore Perry and his men come ashore and, on their "March to the Treaty House", demonstrate their goodwill by offering such gifts as two bags of Irish potatoes and a copy of Owen's "Geology of Minnesota". The negotiations themselves are seen through the memory of an old man and his younger self -"Someone In a Tree", watching silently as history changes course. Initially, it seems as if Kayama has won: the Americans depart in peace. But then the barbarian figure of Commodore Perry leaps out to perform a traditional Kabuki "Lion Dance", which ends as a strutting, triumphalist, all-American cakewalk.
To the surprise of Lord Abe, now the new Shogun, and Kayama, now Governor of Uraga, the Americans return to bid the Japanese court "Please Hello" and to request formal trading arrangements. They are followed by a Gilbertian British Admiral, a clog-dancing Dutch Admiral, a gloomy Russian and a dandified Frenchman all vying for access to Japan's markets. Manjiro continues to dress with painstaking slowness into ceremonial robes for the tea ritual, but Kayama is adopting the manners and dress of the newcomers, proudly displaying his new pocket watch, cutaway coat and "A Bowler Hat". But there are other less pleasant changes prompted by westernisation. Three British Sailors mistake a "Pretty Lady" for a geisha, the girl cries for help and a Swordsman kills the fleeing Tars. Reporting on the situation to the Shogun, Kayama himself is killed by a cloaked assassin - his former friend, the fisherman Manjiro.
In the ensuing turmoil the puppet Emperor seizes the real power from the Shogun and vows that Japan will modernise itself. As the country moves from one innovation to the "Next!", the Imperial robes are removed layer by layer to show the Reciter in T-shirt and black trousers. Contemporary Japan - the world of Toyota and Seiko, air pollution and contaminated beaches -assembles itself around him. "There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here. But that was long ago," he says. "Welcome to Japan."
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