“Merely Corroborative detail . . .”
What’s a Japanese teenager to do when his old man insists he marry an older woman? (Particularly if she’s got a face that would stop a bullet train.) Add to this that father’s word is law because he’s the Emperor of Japan, and he’s also into heavy discipline. What he’s really hung up on though is flirting!
All you gotta do is wink at someone and you’re immediately beheaded! I mean total bummer! Being fiscally conservative as well, the Emperor has restructured and rightsized the judicial system so that all judges perform their own executions, thus eliminating a lot of middle management fat.
The obvious answer, if you are inflicted with such a father, is to join the homeless and find work as a street musician. While living as a street person, the Emperor’s son, adopting the dubious name of “Nanki-Poo,” falls for a local girl named Yum-Yum. Anyway, their romance doesn’t get far because she is engaged to marry her guardian, the above-mentioned tailor.
Now the bad news for the audience at this point is that even though I’ve laid all these plot details on you, the opera hasn’t even started yet!
When the Emperor had his new laws executed, a bunch of officals in a town called “Tikipu” came up with a loophole. Since the next guy on death row in their town was a tailor who got caught flirting, they decide to promote him to be Lord High Executioner. This was based on the rather thin legal argument that, since he was next in line for beheading, he’d have to cut off his own head before he could cut off anyone else’s. This naturally stretched out the already lengthy appeal process.
The Emperor’s son hears that the tailor has been condemned for flirting, but by the time he gets back to Tikipu, the tailor has been promoted to executioner and is about to marry Yum-Yum.
At this point we meet the all-time great role model for aspiring public servants, a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat named Pooh-Bah. Pooh-Bah will do or say anything for an appropriate payment. He introduces Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner (nee tailor) who, it turns out, is now a man with a political agenda. For example, if you’ve got flabby hands and garlic breath, you better hold on to your head!
Ko-Ko, it would also seem, is one of those guys with a strong interest in cute girls, all of whom seem to be suffering from terminal giggles. The girls really get excited when they learn that Nanki-Poo is back in town. By the time they straighten out what’s happening, however, Nanki-Poo is back in the depths of depression. In the meantime, the girls enjoy teasing Pooh-Bah.
As part of his wedding preparations, Ko-Ko is busy bribing all of the city officials (namely Pooh-Bah) so that he can get his wedding paid for. During all this, a letter arrives from the Emperor, pointing out that there have been no executions in Tikipu for some time and they’d better get cracking.
Suddenly, Ko-Ko is faced with the somewhat unpleasant and technically complicated task of cutting off his own head! His only way out is to quickly find a substitute. Unfortunately, Pooh-Bah’s willingness to do anything for money stops short of being appointed substitute. Naturally, at this point, in walks poor depressed Nanki-Poo with a rope in his hand. They quickly strike a simple bargain — Nanki-Poo can marry Yum-Yum tomorrow on the condition that he allow Ko-Ko to behead him at the end of a month. Then, as a widow, Yum-Yum would be free to marry Ko-Ko.
This scheme pleases the townspeople and they launch into a celebration, when what to their wondering eyes should appear, but Katisha, the aforementioned ugly older woman! Although Katisha scares everyone half to death, they ignore her attempts to rat on Nanki-Poo so she storms back to Tokyo to fetch the Emperor and while she’s gone, the audience can finally take a break.
When we rejoin the action, Yum-Yum is getting ready for her wedding and having to endure a few cute jokes from her girl friends about having her wedding plans “cut short” at the end of the month. Unfortunately, Ko-Ko wanders in at this point having just learned from his lawyer (Pooh-Bah — again) that the fine print in the Emperor’s law says that if a married man is beheaded for flirting, his wife must be buried alive! This news, in general, dampens the spirits of the wedding party somewhat. Yum-Yum says, “let’s call the whole thing off” and Nanki-Poo goes despondent on us again.
Meantime, Katisha has fetched the Emperor and they are just coming into town. Ko-Ko, assuming that the Emperor has arrived to see if an execution has taken place, decides he had better come up with one. Nanki-Poo volunteers but Ko-Ko still hasn’t quite mastered his axe-swinging bit yet.
Suddenly he comes up with the bright idea of bribing all the city officials (Yep — Heeeer’s Pooh-Bah!) into claiming that he had beheaded Nanki-Poo. In order for this fabrication to hold up, they have to get Nanki-Poo out of town fast. So the Archbishop of Titipu (name of Pooh-Bah) marries him to Yum-Yum and sends them both packing.
Since the Emperor is a great fan of the efficacy of punishment, the detailed description of the decapitation is well received up to the point where Katisha notices the name “Nanki-Poo” on the death certificate. This of course, means that the Emperor must conjure up a suitable punishment for person or persons who inadvertently kill the heir to the throne of Japan. He decides that something lingering, involving boiling oil and melted lead will suffice. While they are heating the cauldrons, the Emperor does lunch.
Since Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah aren’t particularly hungry, they find Nanki-Poo and try to convince him to come back to life. Nanki-Poo refuses since if Katisha discovers him still alive, she will insist on his and Yum-Yum’s death. They finally decide that the only possible way out of the problem is for Ko-Ko to woo, win and marry Katisha during lunch!
Thus follows a whirlwind romance and a quickie wedding. The relieved Emperor (he finds that not only is his son still alive but he won’t have to put up with Katisha as a daughter-in-law) decides that everything is most satisfactory, and everyone dances off into the sunset in the inimitable Japanese way.