by Justin Hall
The Search for Madame Butterfly, and the Evolution of Early Mixed-Culture Myths
Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly is the most well-known Western tale of Japan-foreign intercultural mixing gone awry. "Captain Pinkerton" and "Madame Butterfly" have come to stand for Western stereotypes of Japanese women, colonial conduct of Western men in Asia, and the difficulty in reconciling Japanese and foreign relationships.
The common version of Madame Butterfly introduces us to an American Naval Captain Pinkerton on an extended stay in Japan. There he expects to take up a local Japanese woman as a bride-away-from-home, evidently a custom for visiting foreign men. He is arranged to marry "Cho-Cho-san" a young lady whose family has fallen financially and so she must sell herself in this way. In spite of the pecuniary basis for this union, love arises in at least one heart, and the Japanese woman finds herself longing for the rather boorish Captain as he leaves. His promise to return cheers her, as she is pregnant with his child, unbeknownst to him. Finally he returns, in the company of his primary wife, so the Japanese woman gives the foreign couple her son and kills herself.
The story has a few permutations; at times the man is French, the woman saves herself and keeps the child. Secondary and tertiary characters act on behalf of or in spite of their presumed national interests. And, it appears that the story is based largely on the life of one famous family in Nagasaki.
Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San
by Jan Van Rij
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The story that became Madame Butterfly went through several iterations as it was interpreted by different authors, eras and nationalities. For this book, Van Rij elected to trace the "amazing flow of inputs" in Puccini's story in three areas.
First of these was tracking the pre-Butterfly existence of Japanese-foreign intercultural marriage. Van Rij explores a few of the famous Chanpon progenitors, including the celebrated German physician Philip Franz von Siebold, who contributed much to the European sense of Japan through contributions to museums and writing. The first literary predecessor was the book Madame Chrysanthemum, by Pierre Loti (nee Julien Viaud). Loti, who himself had served in the French navy in Nagasaki, wrote a semi-autobiographical accounting of his own relationship with a sold woman there. For Loti the relationship is mostly loveless, as he finds her tiresome and writes that she was counting money and looking for another husband as he was departing.
Van Rij next explored Japonisme, the active consumption of Japanese culture in Europe in the later 19th century. Japanese wood block prints found some fans in early Impressionist artists, many of whom found the Japanese design sensibilities provided new stimulation in otherwise stilted times. Besides the celebrated visual impact of a Japanese aesthetic, there was Japonisme in music and this was Van Rij's primary interest. It took him "something like 10 years to finally find a record of 1872 La Princesse Jaune [Camille Saint-Saens's "Yellow Princess] with Japanese pentatonic scales, and Japanese lines in the libretto: formal but accurate Japanese." According to Van Rij, Saint-Saens was the first European composer to use Japanese music in his work, and all the work piling through libraries around the world to track down the truth behind this first cultural mixing did not seem so difficult as finding this record.
It was this story that ended up on stage first in the hands of American empresario David Belasco. His first production of Madame Butterfly in 1900 added Butterfly's suicide to the end and a dramatic cannon ball shot.
This is the third theme, as the stories of actual travelers and Japanese mix with European perceptions of Japan in the late 19th century to make stage adaptations of the tale of Thomas Glover and his butterfly bride. Puccini in England for a brief trip attended a production of Belasco's work. Unable to understand a word of English he was still moved to tears and reportedly begged Belasco on his knees to be able to make the work. Puccini would wait many years before assembling a recomposed version of Belasco's tale.
After sifting through these stories, the threads lead inevitably back to Thomas Glover. But after reviewing the Koseki, the record of family names in Nagasaki, it became clear to Van Rij that this story of Madame Butterfly did not concern Glover's accepted long-standing Japanese wife Tsuru, but another woman Kaga-maki, with whom one of Glover's two brothers had likely had an affair. So there was a mixed-race marriage, and an offspring, but the exact participants have been revised and recomposed to stand for propriety at that time, and cultural shorthand on stage.
Van Rij thought the book title should have been Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Errors. Firstly, the Madame Butterfly of the opera believing her marriage to Pinkerton permanent. At the time Madame Butterfly was first performed, Puccini was supposed to be the best opera composer in the world, but in the eyes of everyone he made terrible technical mistakes - the first draft of the performance was too long and two acts only. The final tragedy was Thomasaburo, the real-life son of the Madame Butterfly. According to Van Rij, he never knew where to which community he belonged. This is perhaps the most sobering moment of this polite inquisition into high culture and prostitution - the son of the prototypical mixed-marriage took his life very shortly after World War II, when the Japanese surrendered he hanged himself.
Perhaps he was conflicted over his identity as scholars continue to struggle with it. Who was the real Cho-Cho-san? There have been other authors to take up this question, notably Brian Burke-Gaffney, Authur Groos, and Noda Kazuko. Kazuko is a granddaughter of Tsuru Glover who happened to be on hand when Van Rij presented his data at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan one evening in April 2002. She stood to speak about her ancestor who she believes is the true Madame Butterfly. With Van Rij she argued some arcana of family records in Nagasaki, as the cloudy history intercultural mixing was played out between a foreigner and a localer with some personal investment in an impossible search for clarity.
The Madame Butterfly character likely appealed to Puccini and opera audiences as a tragic figure, caught up in failed expectations spawned by cross-cultural confusion. Cho-Cho-san was sold as a bride, but thought somehow her marriage might have been subject to love and Western laws. For all that Van Rij makes clear about her, the motivations remain unclear The real Madame Butterfly will likely remain in shadows, which could be fortunate as this impermanent air gives Japanese-foreign cultural mixing some space in which to sculpt more uplifting origins.
|Justin Hall is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo and San Francisco. He has written more about Japan on his own website.|
Posted by Justin Hall at 2002年04月08日 08:11