“Three Little Maids” in Occupied Japan: Domestic Things, The Mikado, and Navy Wife

Conference: The Barcelona Conference on Arts, Media & Culture (BAMC2021)
Title: “Three Little Maids” in Occupied Japan: Domestic Things, The Mikado, and Navy Wife
Stream: Cultural Studies
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Nominerdene Enkhbayar, The University of Tsukuba, Japan


This paper explores the embedded subplot in Hollywood’s forgotten film Navy Wife (1956), a comedy about three maids in Japan under American occupation. Starring Joan Bennett, Navy Wife is about American domesticity in occupied Japan, which three maids undermine. By adopting Robin Bernstein’s theory of "scriptive things", this paper examines the ways in which a comic subplot arises out of the complex interactions between people and things, characters, and props. The Blain household, the main setting of the film, is equipped with the latest electric home appliances, such as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, imported from the United States, and with Japanese maids and servants who are entirely unfamiliar with such domestic machines. These streamlined home appliances serve as "scriptive things" and the agency of things shapes or directs human characters’ actions, namely Japanese servants’, and maids’ actions, to trigger laughter. I suggest that the comic subplot of Navy Wife is loosely based on and significantly rewrites Gilbert and Sullivan’s Japanese-themed operetta The Mikado, which was never performed in prewar imperial Japan. The Mikado was performed for the first time in the Ernie Pyle Theater (formerly the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater) in occupied Japan. Navy Wife rewrites some of The Mikado’s female characters, specifically the three little maids, holding vacuum cleaners instead of paper fans as they do in the opera. This paper argues that with the advent of the three maids, the story of Navy Wife transfigures into a topsy-turvy topical satire on the Americanization of the Japanese domestic sphere.

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