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.
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.
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”
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.
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.