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Pacific Overtures - Plots And Synopsis

Book by: John Weidman
Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim
Music by: Stephen Sondheim
Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler

Pacific Overtures was written as a Japanese conception of what a Broadway musical might be as conceived from the traditional Japanese theatrical viewpoint. It mingles elements of the traditional Japanese theater (most importantly, the Kabuki and Bunraku with some influence from the Noh) with the traditions of the Broadway musical stage. It should be remembered that even the most "western" portions of the musical, are seen through his Japanese sensibility. In keeping with Japanese tradition, the original cast of Pacific Overtures was largely male. Men played all the female characters, until the final scene. Actresses were used as omnipresent, black garbed and masked stagehands and only appeared in character for the finale.

The other elements inherent in the script are all mainstays of the Japanese stage. The hanamichi, or entrance runway through the audience, the use of fans to represent various objects or actions, the use of particularly exaggerated speech and movement during periods of tension are all-important means of creating an "authentic" synthesis in production.

(Prelude) Three Japanese musicians enter and take positions on a low platform at the side of the stage and play their instruments. The stage and the auditorium go black. The stage and house lights come up revealing the Reciter in front of the show curtain, forehead touching the floor in prayer.

The Reciter rises and tells the audience about Nippon, The Floating Kingdom (Japan), an island empire which, for centuries, has lived undisturbed by intruders from across the sea. There was a time when foreigners were welcome there, but they took advantage of the friendship. They were driven out two hundred and fifty years ago by sacred decree of the great Shogun Tokugawa and ordered to never set foot on the ancestral soil. From that time through July 1853 (the date of the play’s action), there has been nothing to threaten there consistent state of peace. ("Advantages")

However, even in the land of changeless order, there are sometimes slight disturbances. A Japanese man in Western dress (a prisoner) enters and is taken to the Shogun's court to be examined, but the Shogun is not there. Instead, the man must be questioned by Lord Abe, First Councilor to the Shogun. The prisoner is John Manjiro, and he comes from a fishing village on the south coast of Shikoku. He is a fisherman who is dressed in Western garb because six years ago his boat was driven out to sea by storms. There, the captain of a barbarian ship took him to Massachusetts. He has now returned from America to Japan, and the Councilors wonder why he has returned. He has violated the Japanese laws twice; first when he left Japan, and then when he returned. Each crime is punishable by death.

They ask Manjiro why he has come back, and he tells them there are rumors in America, rumors he thinks his countrymen should hear. It appears that America is planning to send an expedition to Japan. Manjiro stopped in Okinawa on his way back home and in the harbor saw four black ships, Western warships, fitted out with giant cannons, manned by sailors, armed with weapons such as they have never seen! The Shogun's councilors doubt Manjiro, and even accuse him of being a traitor. However, they cannot rule out the possibility that he may be right and begin preparations to deal with the Americans, should they arrive.

Meet Kayama Yesaemon. A samurai, but one of little consequence. He is taken to see the Shogun's Councilors. He tells his wife to wait for him and goes with the men. The Councilors inform Kayama that they have selected him to be Prefect of Police of the City of Uraga. This means he must meet the Americans when they arrive by taking a boat to their ships, and order them to return immediately to whence they came. Kayama has no choice but to do this.

Kayama returns to his wife, Tamate, and tells her this news. To her, this news sounds quite wonderful, but he is not happy. It seems that it will be virtually impossible to drive these ships away, but if he doesn't, it will be such a disgrace that he will be shunned from everyone. Tamate thinks that perhaps the foreigners won't come, but Kayama is certain that they will. If Tamate fails, he will have no choice but to take his life. ("There is no other way") A bell sounds in the distance, signaling that the Americans have arrived.

A Fisherman notices the four American ships off the coast. ("Four Black Dragons") People are preparing themselves to flee from the Americans, for they are certain that if they don't leave they will be killed. Panic breaks out with everyone staring at the four black ships out in the ocean. Seeing this everyone runs off in different directions.

On the deck of the U.S.S. Powhatan, sailors stand at attention. The leader, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, is revealed. Kayama appears, crouching in a tiny guard boat, which approaches the American ship. He is so inconspicuous that the sailors at first don't notice him; however, he makes his presence known and tells the sailors that the ship must leave. The Americans have no interest in talking with the Prefect of Police. They tell Kayama they wish to only speak with the Councilors.

Kayama returns to land and reports to the Councilors. Kayama then tells them that they shouldn't consider going out to sea themselves. Rather, they should send someone more "dispensable" that can dress in their robes and act in their place. The perfect person for the job is Manjiro, whom they have condemned to death anyway. Manjiro is summoned, and he is dressed and coached to play the part of a councilor. He returns to the ship with Kayama and meets with the American officers. Taking him to be a Councilor, one of the officers tells Manjiro that they bring greetings and a friendly letter from President Millard Fillmore. Manjiro asks for the letter, but they tell him that they will only give it to the Emperor or the Shogun. The Americans further press the issue, telling them to prepare a big ceremony in six days. Then Commodore Perry will bring letter to land. Manjiro tells them that it is impossible for them to stay since there is a sacred decree, which forbids them from being on the island. The officers go off to tell Commodore Perry, and when they return they inform Manjiro that they will stay or blast the island of the face of the earth.

The negotiations are going nowhere. The only choice they have is to get Tokugawa Ieyoshi - the Shogun. ("Chrysanthemum Tea") They go to visit him and his court - telling him of the arrival of the American ships. The Shogun is not well and is attended by his wife, mother, physician and soothsayer. The days pass and they get closer to actually meeting with the Americans. The Shogun's Mother decides that it might be best if there weren't any Shogun to receive the letter that the Americans might just go away. With that, she orders the physician to give her son a "special" blend of chrysanthemum tea. After drinking this, the Shogun dies, leaving no Shogun for Commodore Perry to speak with.

The Councilors talk with Kayama and learn that the Americans still plan on coming ashore to deliver a letter from the President. Upon learning this, the Head Councilor orders that Kayama and Manjiro both be killed. Kayama, however, has a plan. He wants the Americans to come ashore at Kanagawa where there is a small cove. The sacred Japanese decree specifically states that foreigners are not permitted to set foot on Japanese "soil." If they covered the sand at Kayama with special mats and build a treaty house to receive the letter with courtesy, they could burn the mats and destroy the house after the Americans leave. Therefore, the Americans never would have set foot on soil. The Councilors think over this proposal and then agree that it is brilliant, and agree that Kayama will meet the Americans as the new Governor of the City of Uraga. Kayama also then asks the Councilors if they will revoke Manjiro's death sentence and attach him to Kayama's service. They agree to this. Kayama decides that he must return to Uraga to see his wife. She has not heard from him for many days and must be worried. He invites Manjiro along for the journey to keep him company, and the two men set off together composing a poem as they walk. ("Poems")

They arrive at Kayama's house, and Kayama runs in to tell his wife the news - leaving Manjiro outside. He rattles on about everything, and in his excitement does not notice that she is still turned away from him in a kneeling position at the household shrine. He puts his hand on her shoulder and she falls into his arms. She is clutching one of his short samurai swords in her hands; the front of her robe is soaked in blood. Thinking that her husband has failed, she followed his orders and killed herself. Oddly enough, Kayama wipes the blood from his hands and joins Manjiro outside who is too excited to notice the change in his friend. Manjiro excitedly talks about the meeting with the Americans.

The two men make their way up the road and are passed by a garish, middle-aged Madam who is leading four reluctant girls to meet the Americans. As they make their way, she instructs the girls as to how best meet the American men and make them feel "comfortable." ("Welcome To Kanagawa")

The Americans prepare a variety of gifts to take with them when they go on land. They include carbines, revolvers, army pistols, whiskey, champagne, lithographs, batteries, Irish potatoes, Roget's Thesaurus, a fire engine, and a variety of other things depicting Western culture. The Japanese Councilors have only a few exquisitely wrapped packages, each carefully selected, which reflect some aspect of the Japanese craftsmanship and culture. The Americans deliver the vast array of gifts and look a bit skeptically at the few Japanese presents.

The Americans insisted that their mission is a peaceful one, but since the Japanese don't know if they can trust them, they ordered five thousand armed swordsmen on horseback to conceal themselves behind canvas screens stretched across the cliffs at Kanagawa. The Americans simply roared with laughter seeing the screens.

In Commodore Perry's personal journal dated 14 July 1853, it is stated that he hopes that Japanese will accept the reasonable and "pacific overtures" embodied in his friendly letter to them. If they refuse to join the rest of the world and insist on standing alone in isolation, then he will use whatever means necessary to introduce them to the rest of the world. He feels that "this preposterous empire has been closed to foreigners for over two hundred and fifty years, and that is long enough."

The Councilors wait for the Americans to arrive at the new treaty house. They have samurai swordsmen hidden everywhere just in case the Americans choose to use force. No one knows what was said behind the shutters of the treaty house. The Councilors kept their story secret, though the Westerners had their own version. There is no authentic Japanese account of what took place on that historic day. An old man steps forward, saying that he was a young boy at the time and saw everything from a tree where he climbed to watch. In a flashback, a young boy climbs a tree and replays what happened. (Someone In A Tree) A Samurai warrior who was underneath the floor standing guard said that he heard everything that was going on and reported a great deal of arguing. There were many papers signed after all the arguments finished. When all was said and done, Kayama's plan was a success. The letter from the Americans was delivered and the Americans were satisfied and left. The Treaty House was torn down, and the mats were burned. The Japanese felt all was as it should be.

Suddenly, the lion-like figure of Commodore Perry leaps out performing a strutting, leaping dance of triumph. He exits waving two American flags. Though the Japanese feel they have sent the Americans back home, the Americans obviously feel otherwise.

(Prologue) The Reciter enters and kneels at the side of the stage. The curtain rises revealing the Imperial Court in Kyoto, the Emperor, a Priest, and two bored Nobles. Though the Emperor is the sacred ruler of Japan, a thousand years ago, his power was wrested from him by the warlord called the Shogun, and since that time, the Emperor has ruled in name alone. Even though the court supposedly rules over the Emperor, they still lie down in homage before him out of respect. The Emperor is very happy that the Americans did not set foot on Japanese soil and Emperor acknowledges Lord Abe Mashiro as the thirteenth Shogun of the Empire of Japan. The Emperor formally acknowledges Kayama Yezaemon as Governor of the City of Uraga. Finally, the Emperor formally rescinds the sentence of death imposed on the fisherman Manjiro and elevates him to the rank of samurai. It appear that the Emperor and his entire court are very certain that Americans will not come back and are grateful to these men for all they have done.

The new Shogun, Abe, is surprised by the sudden sound of a marching band. An American Admiral enters, carrying a plaque and some official documents. ("Please Hello") The Admiral greets Abe and informs him that the Americans are back and ready for a much longer visit. After an American cannon fires, he feels he has no choice but to acquiesce and Abe agrees to sign a document letting them come back. Suddenly a British Admiral appears and bows to a confused Abe. He has a letter from Queen Victoria demanding that the British be allowed to use the port for trading purposes. Hearing a British explosion, Abe reaches for these documents and signs them. A Dutch Admiral then enters and demands that Abe sign a treaty with him. Soon, a Russian Admiral appears for the same purpose, and poor Abe is forced to sign away the use of the Japanese ports. Soon, all the countries are arguing with Shogun Abe, forcing him to sign a variety of trade papers.

Back in the Imperial Court, the Emperor has learned of the Western invasion and is upset. It is the Shogun's duty to drive the Westerners away using all possible resources.

Time passes and Kayama writes a series of letters to Lord Abe, informing him of the current state of Japan. Slowly but surely Japan is becoming more and more Western. After one year, there are five times as many Westerners as when they first came. After three years the Westerners are not happy with their living accommodations and begin to expand. After six years, the samurai are mistaking Western manners for disrespect and are forced to remove their swords before entering the city. After eight years, rowdy sailors open a club on the island. Soon Kayama, along with much of Northern Japan is transformed by Western traditions. ("A Bowler Hat")

Mr. Jonathan Goble, a marine who once visited Japan ten years ago aboard one of Perry's ships, now returns to bring an American invention which he claims will revolutionize all forms of city transport in Japan--a rickshaw. It is modeled after a Western baby carriage, although in the United States they are pushed rather than pulled. Soon there will be factories building these across the country, and every city in Japan will be full by rickshaws. Rickshaws invented, manufactured, and marketed by Westerners, but pulled by Japanese.

Manjiro and other samurai are practicing their famous sword fighting. These men have not had their heads turned by the wonders of the West. A beautiful Japanese woman completely clad in traditional kimono carries tea on a small low table. She watches the samurai practice their sword fighting, while three British sailors watch her, thinking she is a geisha girl. The sailors climb over a small fence and talk with the girl. ("Pretty Lady") The men are ready for sex and offer her money. However, as they move closer, the girl cowers in alarm and calls for her father, one of the samurai. The sailors realize that they have made a mistake, but before they can run away, one of them is killed and another is slashed by one of the samurai.

Kayama reports to Shogun Abe of the murder of the English sailor. They have sent a letter of apology to Queen Victoria and hope that all will be forgiven. Kayama also reports that the samurai have been reprimanded, but that it seems unwise to punish them. Certain people of the Japanese South are treating them as heroes, calling them the true defenders of Japan. Abe, however, is of the opinion that they must appease the Westerners until the Japanese have learned the secrets of their power and success. The assassins enter and kill Abe for his views. All wonder who sent the assassins that wish to restore the emperor. Then, cloaked figure steps forward demanding that Japan "expel the barbarians." The cloaked figure and the Samurai fight, and the Samurai is killed. The cloaked figure then reveals himself as Manjiro. This shocks Kayama since Manjiro was one of the first to welcome the Americans. The two men fight and Kayama is killed.

The Emperor enters with his Lords of the South who thank Manjiro for what he has done for the Emperor. With the Shogun dead, Japan will be Japan again. Suddenly, the Emperor emerges and states that his word will now be law once again. His word, however, is not what the people expected to hear. He states that from that day forward, all samurai will put their swords aside and cease to wear their crested robes. They will take up useful trades. In the name of progress, Japan will turn backs on ancient ways and cast aside feudal forms. Japan will now open itself up to the rest of the world and do for the rest of Asia what America has done for them. ("Next") Soon technology will become a part of Japan and Japan will become part of the world. There was a time when foreigners were not welcome in Japan, but that isn't the case anymore. Japan is ready to look to the future, making progress with the rest of the world.

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