Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897
Ko-Ko is now the Lord High Executioner in the town of Titipu in old Japan, and to his courtyard come many knights and lords to flatter and cajole the holder of so dread and august an office. One day a stranger appears at Ko-Ko’s palace, a wandering minstrel who carries his guitar on his back and a sheaf of ballads in his hand. The Japanese lords are curious about his presence there, for he is obviously not of noble birth and therefore can expect no favors from powerful Ko-Ko. At last, Pish-Tush questions him about his business with Ko-Ko. Introducing himself as Nanki-Poo, the minstrel announces that he seeks Yum-Yum, the beautiful ward of Ko-Ko, with whom he had fallen in love while playing the second trombone in the Titipu town band a year before. He heard that Ko-Ko is to be executed for flirting, a capital offense in the land of the Mikado, and since Ko-Ko is to die, he hopes that Yum-Yum will be free to marry him.
Pish-Tush corrects the rash young man, telling him that the Mikado had revoked the death sentence of Ko-Ko and raised him at the same time to the great and noble rank of the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. Nanki-Poo is crestfallen, for he realizes that the ward of an official so important would never be allowed to marry a lowly minstrel. Pooh-Bah, another nobleman, secretly resents that he, a man of ancient lineage, has to hold minor office under a man like Ko-Ko, previously a mere tailor. Pooh-Bah, however, is interested in any opportunity for graft; he is even willing to betray the so-called state secret of Ko-Ko’s intention to wed his beautiful ward. Pooh-Bah advises Nanki-Poo to leave Titipu and by all means to stay away from Yum-Yum.
Meanwhile, Ko-Ko has been preparing a list of the types of criminals he intends to execute—autograph hunters, people who insist upon spoiling a tête-à-tête, people who eat peppermint and breathe in another’s face, the man who praises every country but his own, and apologetic statesmen. Uncertain of the privileges of his new office, the Lord High Executioner consults the Lord High Everything Else about the money to be spent on his impending marriage. Pooh-Bah advises him, first as private secretary, and gives one opinion; then as Chancellor of the Exchequer he expresses a contrary point of view. He has a different opinion for every one of his many offices and official titles. They are interrupted, however, by the appearance of Yum-Yum and her sisters Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing. Ko-Ko attempts to kiss his bride-to-be, but she openly expresses her reluctance and distaste.
When the three sisters see Nanki-Poo loitering nearby, they rush to greet him, astonished to find him in Titipu. Ko-Ko, baffled and displeased by their schoolgirl mirth, demands an introduction to the stranger. When Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo have a few moments alone with each other, the minstrel reveals his true identity as the son of the Mikado and confesses the reasons for his flight from court. Katisha, a middle-aged woman in the court, had misunderstood acts of Nanki-Poo as overtures of romance. She mentioned them to the Mikado. He in turn misunderstood his son’s conduct and requested that Nanki-Poo marry Katisha. Nanki-Poo, already in love with Yum-Yum, fled the court in the disguise of a minstrel and went to Titipu.
That same day, Ko-Ko receives from the Mikado a communication that instructs him to execute somebody within a month. Otherwise the office of Lord High Executioner will be abolished; Ko-Ko would be beheaded for neglecting his duties, and the city of Titipu would be ranked as only a village. Perplexed by this sudden and unhappy news, Ko-Ko sees no solution until he discovers Nanki-Poo carrying a rope with which to hang himself. Seeing a way of escape, Ko-Ko bargains with Nanki-Poo, promising him a luxuriant life for thirty days, if at the end of that time the minstrel would allow himself to be executed officially. Nanki-Poo agrees on the condition that he be allowed to marry Yum-Yum at once.
This acceptable solution is upset, however, by the arrival of Katisha, who recognizes Nanki-Poo and tries to claim him for her husband. When she learns that he is to marry Yum-Yum, she attempts to reveal his true identity, but her voice is not heard above the singing and shouting instigated by Yum-Yum. Hearing of the proposed marriage of Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo, Pooh-Bah informs Ko-Ko that the wife of a beheaded man must be buried alive, a law that would mean Yum-Yum’s death if Nanki-Poo were executed. Again lost as to a way out of his problem, Ko-Ko is spurred to action by the unexpected arrival of the Mikado himself. Desperate, he conceals Nanki-Poo and shows the Mikado a forged certificate of Nanki-Poo’s execution.
When the Mikado reads the name of the victim, he announces that the heir-apparent has been executed. According to law, Ko-Ko’s life has to be forfeited. Luckily for Ko-Ko, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum appear at that moment. Husband and wife at last, they are ready to start on their honeymoon. Seeing his son happily married and not dead as he had supposed, the Mikado forgives everyone concerned in Ko-Ko’s plot—the unfortunate Lord High Executioner, however, only after he has wed the jilted Katisha.
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