Butterfly and Beyond
The most resonant and durable image of the Japanese woman from the turn of the twentieth century has been Cho-Cho-San, the doomed young female character in Madame Butterfly. Cho-Cho-San dies by her own hand after falling in love with, bearing the child of, and being deserted by the American naval officer who has purchased her services as a temporary wife while he is stationed in Japan. Borrowing from previous fictions, like Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysantheme (1887), John Luther Long first published Madame Butterfly as a novella in the Century Magazine in January 1898, then in a collection of stories that same year, and then in an elegant edition illustrated by C. Yarnall Abbott in 1903. Renowned theatrical impresario David Belasco adapted Long’s story for the stage in a version that played briefly in New York City in March 1900. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s opera drew on the stage and fictional Butterflies for his opera, which premiered in Milan in 1904, in New York City in 1906 and Los Angeles in 1908. An English-language version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opened in Chicago in 1910, and the Famous Players Film Company in 1915 cast Mary Pickford, the most popular female movie star of the day, as Cho-Cho-San in what was billed as an “exquisite picturization of John Luther Long’s beloved classic.”
The figure of Madame Butterfly resurfaced in a host of other formats, from postcards and cigar labels to advertisements and sheet music. Variations on Long’s version of the Japanese-American encounter appeared throughout the period, featuring youthful, eroticized Japanese females, often involved in cross-cultural (and what were then called inter-racial) romances. At the same time, a host of quite different representations of Japanese women also circulated in the United States, including geisha gracefully inhabiting a pristine version of traditional Japan; workers laboring in fields, practicing age-old crafts, or toiling in the new urban economy; isolated young girls captured unaware in private, domestic moments; children toting children. Japanese femininity itself became a style and role performed by American women and readily purchasable as fashion.n.
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