Takarazuka Revue Company
My own first inkling of this cultural phenomenon came just after I arrived in Japan. Walking through the pouring rain along a back street in the Hibiya theater district of Tokyo, I and a Japanese friend turned a corner and ran into a buzzing crowd of hundreds of umbrella-toting people. A department store sale? A Hollywood star in town? A political rally? No, my friend informed me, they were waiting for their idols to leave the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater. Never having heard the name and noting that every single person in the crowd was female, I assumed that the stars must be young, good-looking and male. Well, I got two out of three.
The all-female Takarazuka Revue Company is such a fanatically supported institution that you know it must touch something deep in the Japanese psyche, or at least the female Japanese psyche. Some ninety percent of fans are female and most are under twenty-five. And the stars they adulate the most are the otokoyaku, the actresses who play the male parts. In Japan's male-dominated society, which only recently has begun to give any more than lip service to equality of the sexes, the otokoyaku represent a vicarious way for young women to live out fantasies of strength and power. But what they really come for is romance, the pure, old-fashioned, fairy-tale variety. So Takarazuka gives them just that, clearcut stories full of romance and spectacle but devoid of crudity or passion, much as Disney sugar-coats its love stories.
The company is made up of hundreds of members that put on performances across the country and abroad year-round. Thousands more teenage girls apply to join every year but the Takarazuka Music School takes on only 40 to 50 new students a year. Those lucky enough to get in face two years of strict discipline and rigorous training. The younger students must walk along the edges of the school's corridors, and bow and greet any sempai (older students) they meet. A daily routine of classes in acting, singing, dancing, music and theater history is coupled with cleaning of dorms and classrooms. Cleaning is done by hand, with mops, scrubbing brushes and even toothbrushes, and keenly checked by the sempai. After their first year of training, students choose whether they want to be an otokoyaku or musumeyaku (female role). Again competition is fierce, with factors like height, build and voice playing a large part. Once training is complete, students graduate and join one of the troupes.
Aika Mire in a Heian Period stage costume (left). The male and female leads from Guys and Dolls (right). Takarazuka uses anything from Japanese and Chinese classics to famous Broadway musical hits as the inspiration for its shows.
Until recently, the company had five troupes: Hana, Tsuki, Hoshi, Yuki, and Senka (Flower, Moon, Star, Snow, and Special Course), and in 1998 the Sora (Cosmos) troupe was added. Each troupe has over 80 members, or Takarasiennes, with a male and a female lead. The Senka troupe was originally created for members who had reached 40 but later became a place for actresses who could move between the other troupes. Every year, each troupe does one run in the company's home city of Takarazuka, near Osaka, and one in Tokyo. The rest of the year, they play other theaters around the country or tour abroad.
Though Takarazuka incorporates many elements of western theater (at the time of writing, the main theater was hosting a performance of Guys and Dolls), it retains strong Japanese elements. The epitome of the Takarazuka show is The Rose of Versailles. It's the story of Oscar, a girl who is brought up as a boy in 18th-century France, but it comes not from a romantic French novel or play but a Japanese manga. The company's structure and the school's training regimen strictly follow the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship that forms the core of many Japanese institutions, including those in sports and business.
(L-R) Takumi Hibiki, Otori Rei, Aika Mire and Juri Sakiho pose at Aika's retirement press conference.
This strictness and the all-female nature of the company are why many Westerners find something "not quite right" about Takarazuka. Claims that the members must be all lesbians are way off the mark, but the perceived eccentricity and sexual ambiguity certainly added to its appeal to the gay community, which embraced the Revue when it toured the UK in the mid-1990s. At the same time, a review in the Guardian newspaper dismissed the show, calling it "Curiously sexless". But this attempt to pan the show is in fact closer to the truth than the reviewer may have intended. After all, while attitudes toward sex in Japan remain liberal to this day, the prominent sex industry is run by and for men. Takarazuka provides a form of escape from this harsh reality for many women.
A poster for the production Asakiyumemishi, based on a popular manga, in turn based on the famous Tale of Genji.
Takarazuka was founded in the city of the same name in 1913 by Kobayashi Ichizo, the president of Hankyu Railways. The city was the terminus of a Hankyu line from Osaka and famous for its hot springs. To boost both travel on the line and business in the city, Kobayashi decided to take advantage of the public's increasing interest in Western song-and-dance shows but with a cast of young, unmarried girls of unquestionable virtue. In a country that even until recently frowned on kissing in public, such scenes - implied rather than acted out - between two girls was deemed more or less acceptable. By 1924, the company had become popular enough to get its own theater. The Dai Gekijo (Grand Theater) has been home to the company ever since and it remains part of the Hankyu Group.
I've never been able to sit through more than a brief excerpt of a Takarazuka performance, on TV at that. What's more, my Japanese wife finds it all a bit embarrassing, too. But it has legions of loyal fans, not all in Japan, and certainly seems to provide a form of entertainment that is very important to a lot of people. It might just be your cup of tea.