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Actors, Skin Colour and the Gentlemen of Japan

February 21, 2010

This entry is inspired by the news that the fact, that French actor Gerard Depardieu is going to act the role of the writer Alexandre Dumas who was the grandson of a Haitian slave, caused a race row. Some people seem to be offended that no black actor was chosen for this role since Dumas referred to himself as black while the film’s directors stated “they simply chose an actor who could match Dumas’s vibrancy”. According to the photograph provided by Wikipedia, Dumas doesn’t look too black to be performed by Depardieu but I don’t want to argue about his self-ascribed identity.

Instead, I was wondering what would happen if a black actor was chosen to take a white role and if there ever has been this case. So I did a little google and apparently it hasn’t except for a theatre production which caused controversy as well.

But I googled a little further and came across a Wikipedia article about blackface. It says that

Blackface is theatrical makeup used in the United States and around the world, where the practice became popular during the 19th century, it became associated with certain archetypes of American racism such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon “. Hence Blackface has become associated with racism, particularly in the USA, so that the term may be used in a broader sense to include similarly stereotyped performances even when they do not involve blackface makeup.

I guess all criticism about whites acting as blacks originates here. From this perspective the criticism is understandable, but scrolling down the article something else struck me: A poster titled “HOT MIKADO”. Wait… mikado is an old expression for the Japanese emperor… How does it relate to blackface?! I had to do a little more google and this is what I found: Video footage from the 1939/40 musical “Hot Mikado”:

A quite impressive colour but silent movie. As we can see the cast is all black, but the story of the musical is located in Japan so in this case blacks are supposed to represent Japanese although none of them wears specific Japanese makeup and their clothes don’t really look Japanese as well. The men’s clothes resemble some future-space-chinese crossover and some of the women wear dresses with huuuuge ribbons and fans only vaguely reminding of kimonos. Should Japanese be offended now? I don’t think so. I think that this show has little to do with Japan itself, but rather intended to show exoticism (and in this case, it’s even doubled).

After clicking through a lot of Wikipedia links I found my way to the original musical called “The Mikado” first shown in London in 1885. 1885 is just some thirty years after the opening of Japan, so the country was pretty unknown to most Europeans at that time. Therefore the playwriters turned their imaginary Japan into a musical and were very successful. Many adaptions followed and are following until today and it’s interesting to see how the image of Japan is changing. While the original version tried to look authentic, later versions such as Hot Mikado interpreted the setting quite freely. Just compare how the first song “The Gentlemen of Japan” developes:

1982 Mikado: The earliest I could find and the most authentic looking.

2007 Hot Mikado: A minimalistic stage featuring the colours of the ’90s. Maybe these gentlemen are supposed to resemble salarymen. Not too inauthentic.

2007 Mikado: Kimono wearing aircraft marshallers using fans as beacons.

2008 Hot Mikado: The golden Twenties swinging on a moonlit stage maybe representing a temple garden. Unfortunately, the moon is hanging upside-down destroying the whole Japan feeling because the rabbit who’s making mochi in Japan now is standing on its ears…

2009 Mikado: Maybe the funniest of all versions because some of the gentlemen obviously wear women’s kimonos.

2009 Martial Arts Mikado: Um, maybe this is even funnier. Kung-Fu gentlemen with white faces (a misunderstanding due to the white makeup of geishas?).

Rocky Israelian Mikado: This version doesn’t even try to be Japanese…

You can find many more versions on Youtube. Although there was a Japanese adaption of the musical as well, most of the casts don’t include a single Japanese. Where the Japanese ever offended by that? This is what Wikipedia says:

The Japanese were ambivalent toward The Mikado for many years. Some Japanese critics saw the depiction of the title character as a disrespectful representation of the revered Meiji Emperor. Japanese Prince Komatsu Akihito, who saw an 1886 production in London, took no offence. When Prince Fushimi Sadanaru made a state visit in 1907, the British government banned performances of The Mikado from London for six weeks, fearing that the play might offend him – a manoeuvre that backfired when the prince complained that he had hoped to see The Mikado during his stay. A Japanese journalist covering the prince’s stay attended a proscribed performance and confessed himself “deeply and pleasingly disappointed.” Expecting “real insults” to his country, he had found only “bright music and much fun.”

Of course, the Japanese don’t have a history of slavery, so their situation is different from that of blacks. But can’t we come over it by now? I don’t care if Depardieu acts as a black as long as he shows respect to Dumas. And I would appreciate more blacks playing white or asian or whatever as well. It’s already possible in theatre and musicals, why not in movies? If it’s possible to turn white actors into big blue aliens, it shouldn’t be a problem to give black actors other skin colours. Well, here’s how it should NOT be done ‘though:

And speaking of Michael Jackson… Who should act his role by the way?

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