Pacific Overtures - PLOT SYNOPSIS

2004 Broadway revival
Pacific Overtures the Musical - PLOT SYNOPSIS

Act I

Conceived as a Japanese playwright's version of an American musical about American influences on Japan, Pacific Overtures opens on July 1853. Since the foreigners were expelled from the island empire, explains the Reciter, elsewhere wars are fought and machines are rumbling, but in Nippon they plant rice, exchange bows and enjoy peace and serenity, and there has been nothing to threaten the changeless cycle of their days ("The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea"). But President Millard Fillmore, determined to open up trade with Japan, has sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry across the Pacific.

To the consternation of Lord Abe and the Shogun's other Councillors, the stirrings of trouble begin with the appearance of Manjiro, a fisherman who had been lost at sea and rescued by Americans. He has returned to Japan and now attempts to warn the authorities of the approaching warships, but is instead arrested for consorting with foreigners. A minor samurai, Kayama Yezaemon, is appointed Prefect of Police at Uraga to drive the Americans away - news which leaves his wife Tamate grief-stricken, since Kayama will certainly fail and both will then have to commit seppuku. As he leaves, she expresses her feelings in dance as two Observers describe the scene and sing her thoughts and words ("There Is No Other Way"). As a Fisherman, a Thief, 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 harbor. Kayama is sent to meet with the Americans but he is laughed at and rejected as not being important enough. He enlists the aid of Manjiro, the only man in Japan who has dealt with Americans, and disguised as a great lord Manjiro is able to get an answer from them: Commodore Perry must meet the Shogun within six days or else he will shell the city. Facing this ultimatum, the Shogun refuses to commit himself to an answer and takes to his bed. Exasperated by his indecision and procrastination, his Mother, with elaborate courtesy, poisons him. ("Chrysanthemum Tea").

Kayama devises a plan by which the Americans can be received without technically setting foot on Japanese soil, thanks to a covering of tatami mats and a raised Treaty House, for which he is made Governor of Uraga. He and Manjiro set off for Uraga, forging a bond of friendship through the exchange of "Poems". Kayama has saved Japan, but it is too late to save Tamate: when Kayama arrives at his home, he finds that she is dead, having committed seppuku after having received no news of Kayama for many days. Already events are moving beyond the control of the old order: the two men pass a Madam instructing her inexperienced Oiran girls in the art of seduction as they prepare for the arrival of the foreign devils ("Welcome to Kanagawa").

Commodore Perry and his men disembark 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 observed through the memories of three who were there: a warrior hidden beneath the floor of the Treaty House who could hear the debates, a young boy who could see the action from his perch in the tree outside, and the boy as an old man recalling that without "Someone In a Tree", a silent watcher, history is incomplete. Initially, it seems as if Kayama has won; the Americans depart in peace. But the barbarian figure of Commodore Perry leaps out to perform a traditional Kabuki "Lion Dance", which ends as a strutting, triumphalist, all-American cakewalk.

Act II

The child emperor (portrayed by a puppet manipulated by his advisors) reacts with pleasure to the departure of the Americans, promoting Lord Abe to Shogun, confirming Kayama as Governor of Uraga and raising Manjiro to the rank of Samurai. The crisis appears to have passed, but to the displeasure of Lord Abe the Americans return to request formal trading arrangements. To the tune of a Sousa march, an American ambassador bids "Please Hello" to Japan and is followed by a Gilbertian British ambassador, a clog-dancing Dutchman, a gloomy Russian and a dandified Frenchman all vying for access to Japan's markets (and all backed up by threatening warships). With this new western threat, the faction of the Lords of the South grow restless. They send a politically charged gift to the Emperor, a storyteller who tells a vivid, allegorical tale of a brave young emperor who frees himself from his cowardly Shogun.

Fifteen years pass as Kayama and Manjiro dress themselves for tea. As Manjiro continues to dress in traditional robes for the tea ceremony, Kayama gradually adopts the manners, culture and dress of the newcomers, proudly displaying a new pocket watch, cutaway coat and "A Bowler Hat". Although Kayama, as stated in his reports to the Shogun, manages to reach an "understanding" with the Western merchants and diplomats, there are other less pleasant changes prompted by westernization. Three British Sailors mistake the daughter of a samurai for a geisha ("Pretty Lady"). Though their approach is initially gentle, they grow more persistent to the point where they offer her money (with insinuations of intended rape); the girl cries for help and her father kills one of the confused Tars. Kayama and Abe travel to the Emperor's court discussing the situation. While on the road, their party is attacked by cloaked assassins sent by the Lords of the South and Abe is assassinated. Kayama is horrified to discover that one of the assassins is his former friend, Manjiro; they fight and Kayama is killed.

In the ensuing turmoil, the puppet Emperor seizes real power and vows that Japan will modernize itself. As the country moves from one innovation to the "Next!", the Imperial robes are removed layer by layer to show the Reciter in modern dress. Contemporary Japan - the country of Toyota, Seiko, air and water pollution and market domination - assembles itself around him and its accomplishments are extolled. "Nippon. The Floating Kingdom. There was a time when foreigners were not welcome here. But that was long ago..." he says, "Welcome to Japan."

Songs from musical: Pacific Overtures the Musical Lyrics
Pacific Overtures synopsis plot