Takarazuka Revue – The Female Kabuki

When one thinks of Japanese theatre, Noh and Kabuki instantly spring to mind. The long drawn-out process of a Noh dance characterised by their static masks reminiscent of a Greek tragedy and the music like speech of Kubuki with its stylised makeup and garish costumes.

Kabuki is still a cultural sausage fest, no women allowed and Noh only (begrudgingly) allowed female performers in after most of their houses were wiped out after the war.

But, female theatrics fear not! there is hope, a beacon of glamour. you too can smell the grease paint, lights on your face, bask in the applause.

Of course there is a catch. A; you have to be cherry picked for the special training school as  teenager and B; you must be able to live to a militaristic set of guidelines (this is of course Japan darling).

The Takarazuka Revue was founded by industrialist (and right winger hush hush)  Ichizo Kobayashi , designed to boost ticket sales for the Hankyu railways, the terminus of which was in the town of (you guessed it) Takarazuka, Hyogo prefecture. The train line being owned by (two for two!) Kobayashi himself. It was created as a side show to the already popular hot springs in the area. Kobayashi found the world of Kabuki elitist and old world. He was dazzled by western musicals and thought an all-female troupe would be a big hit. Female performers in the early 20th century were (besides folk singers) mainly geisha. In some circles geisha were not given the respect and deference they are today. Kobayashi wanted a respectable way for women to perform.

1024px-Donburako-Takarazuka1914
1914, Donburako Takarazuka Revue’s first performance.

Ten years later and The Takarazuka Revue had its own theatre ‘ The Dai Gekijo’. Today it also performs at the Tokyo Theatre in Ginza and has an audience of around 2.5 million a year. The Takarazuka Music School accepts 40 students a year. This year they must have been born between April 2, 1996 to April 1, 2000 But basically it is for girls who have graduated from junior high school, or who have graduated from, or are currently in high school, as of the screening day.

For the first year the girls are trained together. The first year students ‘yoka’ are required to clean the school each morning. after the first year (based on…..leanings? preference?) the girls are split into otokoyaku (男役 male roles) and musumeyaku (娘役 daughter roles). Otokoyaku cut their hair short and adopt masculine traits and speech patterns. The school is heavily focused on dance such as ballet and modern, The girls only have a few lessons a week of regular school subjects. After graduation they are offered seven year contracts.

Turandot 1934
Turandot 1934

Takarazuka Revue performs shows from traditional Japanese stories such as The Tale of Genji to reinterpretations of western films like Bonnie and Clyde.  The Takarazuka format  has a number of set themes. For one the music is all performed by a live orchestra. The stage has a ‘ginkyou’ or silver bridge that curves out into the audience “catching a glance or a wink from the stars as they dance here is a great appeal to fans” according to the websites five theatre secrets. The performance usually ends on a staircase with the cast all out on stage. The use of a mirror ball is also central to “giving life to the fantastic world on stage”

'The Rose of Versailles: Oscar and Andre' (2013) | ©TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY
‘The Rose of Versailles: Oscar and Andre’ (2013) | ©TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY

Lorie Brau (Takarazuka expert) in her article ‘The Womens Theatre of Takarazuka’ states that although the idea of an all-female troupe would be a feminist utopia, the actual reality is the patricahal structure and rigid control the theatre places its performers under is far from empowering. Kobayashi is know to have wanted his actors to of on to become ‘good wives and mothers’ and staff have said the principle of the school is to create ‘wholesome women’. One of the main reasons girls are picked at a high school age (other than their malleability and innocence) is that after their seven year contract is complete they will be at a perfect age for marriage.

There is, of course, a sexual undercurrent (where isn’t there?!). From its creation the audience was mainly women.  In the 1920’s the love letters received by the otokoyaku from their female fans were published. It caused such a scandal that the producers enforced strict living arrangements and forbid the actresses from having physical contact with their fans. This idea is still in effect with groups like AKB48 and the boy bands of Johnny’s productions.

The American anthropologist Jennifer Roberts wrote in Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan that the very act of having women playing men meant that there is lesbian themes in every takarazuka performance and that this is intrinsically understood by its audience. conversely other writers have said that the popularity of Takarazuka is Japanese women enjoying the fluidity of gender in an otherwise strictly gendered society. In Japan there is a phenomenon know as Class S, the idea of a woman, affected by watching Takarazuka goes back to her life and forms crushes on her female colleagues and classmates.

Yuki Amami as Rhett Butler Gone With The Wind - 1994
Yuki Amami as Rhett Butler Gone With The Wind – 1994

Gender roles and lesbianism aside, today Takarazuka is as popular as ever. Actors go on to have careers in show business beyond the stage starring in films and appearing on TV. Alumni have huge fan clubs and they are doted on well into retirement.  Fan clubs so devotion to their favourite performers by wearing special coloured scarves or with embroidered jackets. After performances, fan wait quietly outside the stage door, as the actors emerge they move to their designated group. Rather than requesting autographs fans give cards to their idol who efficiently gathers them, says a few words and leaves.

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3 thoughts on “Takarazuka Revue – The Female Kabuki

  1. Yet another article about Takarazuka, that fails to mention anything about the hard work of the performers, or the quality of their productions, and focuses on what wikipedia and Robertson’s book has to offer.
    Robertson’s book is full of conspiracy theory and western mind set while explaining something that is not western.
    Sees the Takarazuka students (and not actors) as nothing more than sexual objects who only serve as fantasy lesbian lovers to a middle age housewives.
    Both Robertson and this very article that quotes her, do not give any artistic credit to the Revue.

    As for Kobayashi, he was a business/marketing mastermind, in a time when the public opinion about acting was equivalent to prostitution, he managed to convince families of high society to enroll their daughters to a SAFE environment, with the promise that these girls will not meet with men. The “good wife, wise mother” was a motto of the time and he used it as another convincing tool, even though the girls were never taught how to clean or cook or raise children in his school (the cleaning process of the school is an installment that happened later, in the 70’s if I’m not mistaken).
    Also he would give them fat salaries and advice them to buy property with the money. If you ask me, someone who tries to make good wives and wise mothers why would advice them to be independent?
    All these you can read in “Gender gymnastics[…]” by Stickland.

    Now on the subject of lesbianism, yes some are probably lesbians(we can’t know, they are not allowed to say), yes there is a part of audience who is watching for the lesbian aspect, that though is totally irrelevant with what Takarazuka really is, a genre of performing arts.

    Most of the fans, myself included, we see the students as our own children, we care for them in a parental way, we want to feed them well, we want them healthy, and we feel proud when we see them progress in their art and go up the ranking stairs.

    Letters/cards and gifts are given every single day to the stars from their FanClubs, handed while sharing few words. If these actions translate as sexual fantasies to some (Robertson for instance), can’t even try to understand what is going on in their minds.

    The Revue itself never made a stance against LGBT, but they are fed up of throwing sexual orientation on them. They want to be seen for their art, not who their members (students, teachers, staff, etc) are sleeping with. They are a dream world, with ideal “men” and “women” who do not exist in reality, and they offer just that, a dream for the audience to escape from the sad and painful reality.

    Sincerely,
    星らぶ

    1. Thank you for your input. I agree that Takarazuka artists should be highly praised for their craft. I think you’ll find i only referred to them as students when i was talking about their time at school.

      As a member of the LGBT community myself I am biased and do find LGBT themes in various areas.
      I mainly tried to quote female writers when talking about Takarazuka. I think to dismiss the lesbian tones in Takarazuka performances (all female cast with mostly female audience) is flippant and whitewashing.

      1. About the student thing, they are students not only when they are in school, but also when they step on the stage, until their retirement.

        As for the LGBT themes yes there are. The problem here I think is quoting from Robertson to begin with, because she pictures everyone, as lesbian. (which would be awesome if you ask me but, reality check tell us that communities are diverse).

        I personally disagree that the all female cast gives lesbian tones, the same way an actor who plays a murderer is not giving murderous undertones. If people see the otokoyaku as women when they clearly portray a male character, then the otokoyaku doesn’t do her job right, and they work really hard to master their craft. If audience can not forget their real gender and keeps on seeing them as just women playing some characters, it is a disrespect on their efforts and hard work. (and this is my only objection on seeing ONLY lesbian tones in their performances)

        Now if someone look at a performance with an open mind they can see TONES of LGBT themes.
        Many plays include random gay characters, most notably a play about the life of Nijinsky, he was performed as a gay character from an otokoyaku, being kissed and sensually touched by another male character (another otokoyaku).
        Another case of notably gay character is Madam X from Nova Bossa Nova. She is a Lady who has a club for women only, she is only seduced by women. The story has her having a necklace in her possession that two (male) thieves want to steal, these two guys crossdress as women to seduce Madam X and steal the necklace from her.
        And then we have Revues, which are dancing and singing sequences that follow a light story line. The basic theme of all Revues are the S man and the S woman, these two always end up together but while they try to find each other through out the story, they are being seduced and adorned and seducing both male and female characters. (a bisexual tone at its best).

        Takarazuka in general has a sexless image, and wants to keep it that way because that;s what they sell, that;s why the violet code forbids the girls to talk about their romantic lives and fans/press/etc to ask and speculate about them too.

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