In a quite fictionalized version of Japan, Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado (the Emperor), wanders the streets as a Wandering Minstrel. Meanwhile, a hapless tailor named Ko-Ko has been saved from the chopping block and appointed High Executioner. Instructed to execute somebody before The Mikado returns, Ko-Ko happens upon Nanki-Poo, who is in love with the maiden Yum-Yum, and contemplating suicide because she's due to marry Ko-Ko himself. Seeing an opportunity, Ko-Ko decides to help Nanki-Poo have his death wish and to be with Yum-Yum. Hilarity Ensues.
This work provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Katisha for Nanki-Poo
- Added Alliterative Appeal: Gilbert really enjoyed alliteration:To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!
- Affably Evil: The Mikado, who is completely understanding about the accidental execution of his son, describing the execution of the killers in boiling oil as a regrettable but unavoidable legal requirement."I'm not a bit angry."
- All There in the Script:
- Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing, the second and third of the "three little maids from school". Pitti-Sing's name is mentioned once. Toward the end, when Katisha asks the Mikado for mercy for Ko-Ko and his two "accomplices", she names Pitti-Sing.
- Pish-Tush, who is not so much a character as a singing part.
- Go-To gets eight words in the entire show and sometimes isn't even mentioned in the cast list (or is simply A Noble) since he was only introduced to sing the bass part in "Brightly dawns our wedding day"; it was written for Pish-Tush (who often sings it nowadays) but the original actor couldn't sing low enough.
- Anachronism Stew: Modern productions tend to be updated with current references, especially prevalent in "The List" song.
- Arranged Marriage: For once it's the man, Nanki-Poo, fleeing an arranged marriage to a loathsome older woman, Katisha.
- Artistic License: Completely and intentionally misrepresents Japanese culture for Rule of Funny purposes. The intent was to satirize English culture, not mock Japanese culture.
- Asshole Victim: In "I've Got a Little List", Ko-Ko, now the Lord High Executioner, explains that if he's going to execute anyone, it'll be people that no one will be sorry to be rid of, criminals or not. Since many of the examples listed won't make much sense to modern audiences (or may not be very fair by today's standards) the song's lyrics are often revised or updated to feature topical examples.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: It should go without saying that basically none of the characters have actual Japanese names.
- Even the name of the play is sort of an example of this. The word mikado is presented as meaning "emperor". In fact it means the general authority of the Emperor, a bit like how the British civil government is referred to as "Downing Street". It is not a title given to a person.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Yum Yum: Beautiful=Good, Katisha: Ugly=Evil. However this trope is lampshaded and parodied as well. Yum Yum asks herself why she's the most beautiful woman in the whole world in one scene ("Can this be vanity? No!"). As for Katisha, although she is genuinely bloodthirsty and cruel, her loneliness makes her sympathetic ("Hearts do not break, they sting and ache...").
- Black Comedy
- Blue BloodPooh-Bah: I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmic primordial atomic globule.
- Bowdlerise: A couple of N-word references are generally now re-written in "I've Got a Little List" and "My Object All Sublime."
1: Or stains her gray hair green/Is taken to Dover/And painted all over/A horrible ultramarine.
- While in no way giving Sir William N-Word Privileges, he was referring not to actual people of African extraction, but to Minstrel Shows and Blackface actors (c.f. reference to "serenader" and "blacked-like...with walnut juice", respectively), a cheap gimmick that would likely have offended Gilbert, to whom stage acting was quite Serious Business, even if the lyrics were not. Still, use of the term is considered to be in bad taste these days, and there is no real objection to these minor alterations, provided they fit the rhyme and rhythm.
- Gilbert also permitted bowdlerising out the N-word in American versions, after being told that using the word was considered poor taste in America (which it was, but more for its association with Southern "white trash" than any racist implications).
- The normal bowderization for "My Object All Sublime" is "painted with vigor/With permanent walnut juice". However, Martyn Green reports that Sir Alan P. Herbert suggested a few other rewrites:
2: Or stains her gray hair puce/Is made to wear feathers/In all the worst weathers/And legibily labeled "goose".
3: Or stains her gray hair blue/Is made to wear feathers/In all the worst weathers/And live in a drafty zoo.
- The Chew Toy: Ko-Ko is first condemned to death, then when he's released and made Lord High Executioner he finds he needs to decap someone or he will lose the position. He fakes an execution, but finds he's facing a Cruel and Unusual Death for needlessly killing the crown prince. And, in order to be able to produce said crown prince alive, he has to marry an odious old Witch with a Capital "B".
- Christmas Cake: Katisha, a very old maid, pines for Nanki-Poo and for the title of "Daughter-in-Law Elect of the Mikado", and eventually Queen. From her behavior in the second act, it is clear that she would pattern her reign after the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland ("off with their heads!"), so the inhabitants of Titipu could heave a sigh of relief that she didn't get her wish.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Pooh Bah.
- Cool and Unusual Punishment: "A More Humane Mikado" is made of this.
- Disproportionate Retribution: You can get the death penalty for flirting.
- Driven to Suicide: Nanki-Poo attempts to off himself when he thinks he can't marry Yum-Yum, but Ko-Ko has other ideas...
- Either/Or Title: As is typical of G&S operettas.
- Evil Sounds Deep:
- The Mikado and Katisha are a bass and a contralto, respectively.
- Pooh-Bah, likewise, is a bass or a baritone. (He's not really evil, but he is a jerk.)
- Evolving Music:
- The titular list from "I've Got A Little List" often has the words updated to poke fun at current topical references, unless the director is a major traditionalist. Gilbert himself sanctioned some of this rewriting when he realized that "the lady novelist" on Ko-Ko's list wouldn't always be seen as "a singular anomaly" and let singers suggest their own alternatives. The most popular replacement? "The girl who's never kissed"! The prohibitionist is also a popular substitution.
- "The tactful journalist - I don't think they exist! So I'm sure they'll not be missed."
- It's somewhat expected to couple this with some Self-Deprecation, as when one production added to the list "All people who write different words to Mr. Gilbert's songs..."
- Less frequently, the Mikado's song receives this treatment as well.
- Every Man Has His Price: Pooh-Bah would be insulted if you offered him a bribe, and mortified at the prospect of working for a salary. However, as a man of high moral principles, he is grateful for every such opportunity to practice self-abasement.
- Flanderization: When the Mikado was originally played by Richard Temple in 1885 he was a slightly sinister "suave and oily" reserved monarch with just the very lightest touch of the manical in the background. By the end of the 1920s, however, Darrell Fancourt had turned him into a maniacal tyrant complete with a flamboyant evil laugh. G and S fans are divided as to which was the better approach.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: The chorus sings, "If true her tale thy knell is rung. Thy knell is rung," stipulated to be sung as deep, ringing bells.
- Forgot I Could Change the Rules: The Mikado acknowledges that it was a complete mistake that his son was beheaded (they were Just Following Orders that somebody be put to death, and Nanki-Poo was in disguise, and entirely despondent on losing the love of his life to Ko-Ko). Still, the law is the law, and there's nothing he can do, despite being The Emperor of all Japan, whose word is law. Well, he is going to have it altered — too late to save the unfortunate trio, though. Hey, he's The Emperor — you can't expect him to rush off in a panic just for the sake of a few witless underlings.
- The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You - Played for Laughs: In Lord High Executioner's "I've Got a Little List" song, some versions will have him refer to members of the cast, and possibly the audience as well.
And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,
- Martyn Greene recounts that when he played Ko-Ko, even without changing the words he was often able to get a huge laugh by looking pointedly up at the seats of any visiting dignitaries (once including Winston Churchill!) at exactly the right moment:
Such as What d'ye call him Thing'em-bob, and likewise Never-mind,
And 'St 'st 'st and What's-his-name, and also You-know-who....
- Gallows Humor: Plenty. As a main character is the Lord High Executioner, and much of the plot revolves around an execution, quite a bit of it is literal gallows humor.
- Gender-Blender Name: It's probably by accident, given how most of the names are gibberish, but Koko (Ko-Ko) is in fact a legitimate Japanese name. In real life, though, it's almost always a woman's name.
- Grande Dame: Katisha.
- Greed: Pooh-Bah claims he took on all the positions in the state to mortify his pride — and accepts the salaries.
- Guilt by Association Gag: Poo-Bah and Pitti-Sing get condemned to death for Nanki-Poo's supposed execution at the hands of Ko-Ko, simply because they happen to be hanging around.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Several.
- The opening lines:
If you want to know who we are
We are gentlemen of Japan
On many a vase and jar...
...on many a screen and fan
We figure in lively paint
Our attitude's queer and quaint.
- The "nigger serenader and the others of his race" in Ko-Ko's list song do not refer to a desire for genocide, but rather that if blackface minstrels and similar types of entertainers disappeared, the world would be a slightly better place. Actual performers of colour weren't a thing in middle-class circles until The Roaring '20s.
- "Dicky-bird, why do you sit / Singing willow, tit-willow, tit-willow?" must have meant something else in the 19th century...
- The opening lines:
- Hesitant Sacrifice: Ko-Ko, reluctant to execute himself, appoints Pooh-Bah "Lord High Substitute" as executionee.Pooh-Bah: Such an appointment would realize my fondest dreams. But no, at any sacrifice, I must set bounds to my insatiable ambition!
- Hollywood Medieval Japan: Kind of. Nothing in the script, except the title, bears any real resemblance to actual historical Japan. However costumes and decor were inspired by popular interest in Japanese art, but Word of Gilbert explains that it's a pretext for satire that's actually directed toward contemporary English institutions.
- Horny Sailors: There's a rollicking sea shanty about how landlubbers love sailing...and sailors love being inland cuddling girlfriends.
- Hope Spot: "There should be, of course...but there isn't."
- Hypocritical Humour: More than one rewrite of "If Someday It May Happen" (wherein Ko-Ko lists people he feels should be executed) includes "All people who write different words to Mr. Gilbert's songs!"
- "I Am" Song: "If you want to know who we are" (The people of Titipu), "A wandering minstrel, I" (Nanki-Poo), "Behold the Lord High Executioner" (Ko-Ko), "Comes a train of little ladies" (The school girls), "Three little maids from school" (Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing & Peep-Bo) and "Miya Sama" (The Mikado & Katisha). Yes, six of them, quite possibly a record.
- Inherently Funny Words:
- Just about all of the names.
- "I drew my snickersnee..." (a real word dating back to at least 1775, meaning a long knife used as a weapon)
- Titipu. (Heh Heh....)
- Insane Troll Logic: How the crisis is averted in the end.Ko-Ko: When Your Majesty says "Let a thing be done", its as good as done, practically it is done, because Your Majestys will is law. Your Majesty says "Kill a gentleman", and the gentleman is to be killed, consequently that gentleman is as good as dead, practically he is dead, and if he is dead, why not say so?
The Mikado: I see. [Dramatic Pause] Nothing could possibly be more...satisfactory!
- Cue the Dance Party Ending
- It Gets Easier: Parodied when Ko-Ko announces that he can't execute a human being just yet; he'd planned on starting with a guinea pig and killing progressively larger, more intelligent animals until he got there.
- Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Technically, Ko-Ko, although he's upstaged by Pooh-Bah who is the "Lord High Everything Else."
- King Incognito: Prince Nanki-Poo disguises himself as a minstrel to escape the advances of Lady Katisha, a much older woman who wants his hand in marriage.
- Lawful Stupid: The Mikado agrees with Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing's explanation that the execution of his son Nanki-Poo was a complete accident, that nobody should have been expected to deduce his true identity through the disguise, and that they were, after all, carrying out the Mikado's orders that somebody be executed...but that the three of them should still be subjected to "something lingering with boiling oil in it" for the crime of murdering the Heir Apparent of Japan. He even regrets having to do so, stating that there is nothing that he could do about it.
- The Mikado actually says, "That's the slovenly way in which these Acts are always drawn. However, cheer up, it'll be all right. I'll have it altered next session. Now, let's see about your execution will after luncheon suit you? Can you wait till then?" (Implying that Japan has a Parliament, which is in keeping with all of Poo-Bah's British-style state titles.)
- Listing the Forms of Degenerates: "I've Got A Little List", which lists all the kinds of people who can be executed without public protest, as does "A More Humane Mikado" in the next act.
- Local Reference:Ko-Ko: The fact is, he's gone abroad.
The Mikado: Gone abroad? His address!
- Knightsbridge was the site of a Japanese cultural exhibition around the time the operetta premiered (indeed, its popularity was an inspiration to Gilbert). The reference is often changed to something local to the production.
- List Song: Ko-Ko's "I've got a little list." The Mikado's song "A More Humane Mikado" also spends a lot of time listing people.
- The Long List:
- When they say Pooh-Bah is "Lord High Everything Else," they mean it.note
- The list in "I've Got a Little List" isn't really that little. This is sometimes parodied by having it reach the floor when unrolled.
- Loophole Abuse: Flirting was made a capital offense, but everyone tries to find a way around that. Notably, this explains how Ko-Ko became Lord High Executioner: He was promoted to the post after being sentenced to death, but since he can't cut off his own head, and since nobody else can be executed until he is, everyone is free to indulge in flirting!
- Losing Your Head: While Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah are describing the supposed execution of Nanki-Poo, Pooh-Bah gets carried away and claims that Nanki-Poo's severed head remained animate long enough to bow politely three times in farewell.
- Love Triangle: Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo.
- Metaphorically True: This resolves the conflict at the end (with a heaping accompaniment of Insane Troll Logic) when the characters are able to convince the Mikado that, since his word is law, anyone who the Mikado says should be executed is "as good as dead," never mind that they're still alive.
- Most Writers Are Male: An item on Ko-Ko's list is "That singular anomaly, the lady novelist", although this is changed into "the prohibitionist" and "the scorching motorist" in subsequent productions.
- Nightmare Fetishist:
- Katisha sings a whole song about how awesome thunderstorms, tigers, earthquakes, and volcanoes are.Katisha: And you won't hate me because I'm just a little teeny weeny wee bit bloodthirsty, will you?
Ko-Ko: Hate you? Oh, Katisha! is there not beauty even in bloodthirstiness?
Katisha: My idea exactly!
- Many people during the opera express bloodthirsty glee at the prospect of executions (well, executions that are not their own.)
- Katisha sings a whole song about how awesome thunderstorms, tigers, earthquakes, and volcanoes are.
- Off with His Head!: Ko-Ko's job duties, although he never actually performs them. Discussed in several songs as well, including "I Am So Proud" and "The Criminal Cried."
- Opening Chorus: "If You Want To Know Who We Are." Doubles as an "I Am" Song for the chorus, explaining that they're gentlemen of Japan.
- Overly Long Gag: Pooh-Bah holds the note a ludicrously long time when wishing "long life" to Nanki-Poo upon his engagement to Yum-Yum (several productions have Nanki-Poo trying to walk out on him and Pooh-Bah stopping him). The payoff comes when he finishes the song:Long life to you —
Long life to you —
Long life to you — till then!
- Pair the Spares: Played with. The hero and heroine each start off facing an incipient Arranged Marriage before meeting and falling in love. Rather than the two left-over parties to the arranged marriages just happening to hook up, the hero and heroine actively orchestrate it so that neither will be able to insist on the arrangement going ahead as planned.
- Patter Song:
- "I've got a little list."
- Also, "A More Humane Mikado," which is actually more demanding in the patter. Indeed, Gilbert was seriously considering cutting out this song because it is essentially the same as "I've got a little list." He was talked out of doing it by the chorus (as a body) who argued that it was the Mikado's only solo.
- The second half of "I Am So Proud."
- The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Ko-Ko is the Lord High Executioner, but never executes anybody. Nor do we ever see Pooh Bah performing any of his various capacities.
- Pride: Pooh-Bah accuses himself of this because of his Blue Blood.
- Punny Name
- Rebel Prince: Nanki-Poo, who rejects life at the royal court in favor of wandering around disguised as a minstrel.
- Runaway Fiancé: the male version.
- Running Gag: Pooh-Bah being treated/described/asked for his opinion as if he's multiple different people, due to his numerous jobs (basically every official in Titipu except Lord High Executioner).
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Hamlet's reference to Claudius as a "king of shreds and patches" is borrowed:"A wand'ring minstrel I,
A thing of shreds and patches!"
"Friends, Shogun, Countrymen! Lend me your ears!""Nanki-Poo? Nanki-Poo? Wherefore art thou Nanki-poo?"
- In the recent Australian Opera production:
- Spurned into Suicide:
- Nanki-Poo prepares to off himself when he believes he will not be allowed to marry Yum-Yum. This gives Ko-Ko the idea for his deal.
- The title bird in "Tit-Willow." Ko-Ko sings the song to hint to Katisha that he may do the same if she rejects him.
- Stylistic Suck: To go with the very As Long as It Sounds Foreign names and various other elements in the play, many productions choose to do the same visually, and decidedly aim left of any sort of cultural accuracy with the costumes and sets.
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: A meta-example. Gilbert explained that the reason he didn't include many of his trademark whimsical rhymes for actual Japanese words and titles, although he was tempted, was that he realized early on that "Samurais" rhymes with "Damn your eyes." And he couldn't very well include that in a Victorian production, "unless [Sullivan's] music had drowned the expression in the usual theatrical way—Tympani fortissimo, I think you call it."
- Suicide as Comedy: Nanki-Poo decides to hang himself when he believes he won't be able to marry Yum-Yum. This is a significant plot point, and played purely for laughs.
- Tenor Boy: Nanki-Poo
- The Theme Park Version: Of Japanese culture. There was an "oriental" craze in Britain at the time the musical was written and the artificiality is occasionally drawn attention to. One character is mentioned having gone to Knightsbridge which is in Britain, not Japan, and at the time was host to an actual theme park based on Japan. Even the opening chorus cheerfully acknowledges that it is not intended to be realistic but is drawn from what can be seen "On many a vase and jar / On many a screen and fan."
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: In some productions of The Mikado Pitti-Sing is played as a tomboy to Yum-Yum's Girly Girl.
- This Is Reality: After Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti-Sing are convicted of inadvertantly doing away with the heir to the throne, the Mikado remarks that he's sorry for them, but this is an unjust world and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.
- Try to Fit THAT on a Business Card!: Pooh-Bah is: Master of the Rolls, Master of the Buckhounds, Groom of the Backstairs, First Lord of the Treasury, Solicitor, Lord Chamberlain, Attorney-General, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Privy Purse, Lord Chief Justice, Leader of the Opposition, Paymaster-General, Lord High Auditor, Archbishop of Titipu, First Commissioner of Police, Private Secretary, Groom of the Second Floor Front, Lord Mayor and Judge Ordinary. Indeed the only position in city government he does not hold is that of Lord High Executioner; his shorter title is Lord High Everything Else. Modern productions like to add some titles to introduce more contemporary humour. Examples would be Director of Homeland Security or Husband of Elizabeth Taylor.
- Translation: "Yes": In the children's book version of the story adapted by Gilbert, he explains that Yum-Yum's name supposedly translates as, "The full moon of delight which sheds her remarkable beams over a sea of infinite loveliness, thus indicating a glittering path by which she may be approached by those who are willing to brave the perils which necessarily await the daring adventurers who seek to reach her by those means." He goes on to explain that the Japanese language is remarkably compact.note
- Unwanted Assistance: "Will you refrain from putting in your oar!?!"
- Villain Song: "A More Humane Mikado", and for Katisha, "Your Revels Cease".
- Wandering Minstrel: Nanki-Poo's disguise
- Lampshaded in the song "A Wand'ring Minstrel I."
- Wife Husbandry: Ko-Ko is Yum-Yum's guardian, and explains "I've educated her to be my wife; she's been taught to regard me as a wise and good man."
- Yellowface: Part of the originally intended joke is the performers - despite being in yellowface - are actually examples of stupid British aristocrats. At the time there was a huge craze for Japan culture in Britain so having the characters be Japanese was a bit of satire. Since the joke is no longer relevant and yellowface much less acceptable directors have chosen to go in different directions.
- One technique is to eschew makeup entirely and simply have them dressed as Japanese characters.
- Another direction is to reverse it; all the characters are obviously, excessively British (huge sideburns, thick accents) while still using faux-Japanese names and garb, thus rebuilding the joke that this is not some bizarre Eastern culture indulging in idiocy, but British upper-crust pretending to be so.
- Another that is gaining a bit of currency is to portray everyone as Anime characters, which preserves the intended satire on Western fascination with The Theme Park Version of Japanese culture.
- And of course one can always simply cast Asian or Asian-American actors in the roles.