TAKING TAKARAZUKA (BY STRATEGY)
My experience backstage at Japan's unique Takarazuka Revue
By Ryan Sands, Fall 2009
(Photos taken by Ryan Sands, images from my collection of 1950s Takarazuka Graph magazine)
It’s August 18, 2003, and I’m standing backstage at a lunch reception next to two top stars of the Takarazuka Revue. The actresses are tall and regal, like some benevolent Amazonians, and smiling at me in a curious and detached way. I’m excitedly explaining to them in Japanese how I studied their theater in academic courses at Stanford University and gushing about the performance I’ve just seen, which makes them laugh a lot. I think they think I’m either extremely dorky or really charming.
I’m far and away the youngest person in the room (aside from the actresses), one of the only dudes, and the only foreigner in the place. How did I end up here, and what is going on right now? To begin, let me jump back a few years.
I first encountered the Takarazuka Revue during my sophomore year of college, in a Japanese Popular Culture course. We were shown the documentary film Dream Girls, directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, which depicted the lives and training of actresses at the all-female theatre in Japan. The documentary discussed the behind-the-scenes of the Takarazuka academy and show rehearsals, but also reveled in the raw showmanship of the performances themselves, capturing for viewers outside of Japan all the glitter, costumes, singing, melodrama, and sensuality of contemporary Takarazuka performances.
Dream Girls also features a clip of an actress dressed as JFK, dancing around with a giant model of a nuclear warhead (I’m not kidding). I had already visited and lived in Japan on two occasions as a high school exchange student, but had never encountered Takarazuka before. What was this insanity? I was immediately enamored with the visual spectacle and the conceptual weirdness of what I saw that day.
Professor Reichert introduced the Takarazuka Revue in a section of the course on early-20th century urban culture, the same milieu from which other favorite modern cultural products sprung, like the pulp detective fiction of Edogawa Rampo, the embrace and absorption of Western clothing and hair styles, and the appearance on the Tokyo scene of the rebellious and exciting fashion of the urban moga (“Modern Girl”) style.
The Takarazuka Revue was founded in 1913 by Ichizo Kobayashi, a wealthy industrialist, as a way to get people to ride his regional Hankyu railroad and visit Takarazuka City’s hot springs at the end of the line. Located west of Kyoto and north of Kobe, Takarazuka City is a small and somewhat out of the way place. It has the distinction of being the hometown of manga god, Osamu Tezuka (Discussed in Issue 1 -ed.), and the site of the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum.
Kobayashi had the foresight (desperation?) to fill the entire theatre troupe with female actresses, as another ploy to get visitors to come. In Takarazuka Revue, every character in the performance is played by a woman. These specialized actresses were assigned performative genders early in their training, either as an otokoyaku (player of male roles) or a musumeyaku (player of female roles). Over the following decades, the construction of gender in Takarazuka productions became more and more stylized, and codified.
Though the roles are played by females, both the musumeyaku and otokoyaku are hyperstylized gender performances. The musumeyaku generally speaks in a high-pitched voice, bats long-lashed eyes, and are slighter than the otokoyaku. The otokoyaku are tall, have short hair cuts, and talk in deep and boisterous voices. Clothing, posture, and demeanor are all part of a performance that conveys the actresses’ roles. In Takarazuka (like in football or orchestra), there is an organized ranking system for members ranging from chorus members to top stars. Amon these, the otokoyaku top star is the head honcho and recipient of the highest level of female fan adoration. Despite the weird gender-mashing of the Revue and the touch of lesbianism subtext, the whole thing can be read as a pretty heteronormative affair with good wives and dashing gentlemen filling the stage.
The Takarazuka Revue exploded in popularity over the 1930s -1950s, and still remains the most lucrative theater company in Japan. Starting with one troupe in 1913, the company has blossomed over into 5 distinct troupes: Moon, Star, Snow, Flower, and the most recently-created troupe, Cosmos (added in 1998). The troupes perform at both the Tokyo Theatre and the original (humongous) Takarazuka Grand Theatre in Takarazuka City. Hundreds of fans regularly attend their near-daily performances, for a chance to escape the mundane and get swept up in the spectacle. Without too many exceptions, the fans of Takarazuka are female, ranging from high school students to a large phalanx of devoted middle-aged housewives and retirees.
The theatre accepts a very small number of girls each year for enrollment at the Takarazuka Academy, and they have to go through three grueling years of training before joining the new actor class. As depicted in Dream Girls, the actresses are assigned gender specialties early on in their training, and work in those roles for the entire career with the Revue. Once joining a new class of Takarasiennes, they have the chance to perform on stage and work their way through the ranks within their respective troupes. Some performers stay for a few years before leaving Takarazuka, while others on the path to to stardom have longer, more lucrative careers. While most folks who aren’t in line for Top Stardom leave after a while, some actresses go career with the Revue, and stay long term as a member of the chorus. Fun fact: Japan’s newest First Lady, Hatoyama Miyuki, is a former Takarazuka starlet from the 1960s. Now I love Michelle Obama, but you have to admit, that is pretty badass.
Like most Americans who have heard about Takarazuka, I learned about the Revue originally in an academic setting, first in a pop culture course, and later in a class on gender and sexuality in Japan. American scholar Jennifer Robertson was the first foreign researcher to write an accessible and in-depth book about the Takarazuka Revue in English, and in it, she tackles the unique gender constructions and stylings of the Revue’s all-female performances. Robertson also discusses Takarazuka role in the wartime propaganda machine of the 1930s and 1940s. The final chapters of the book (which were most interesting to me) talk about fan pathologies and relationships to the stars, a topic which is touched on in my interview with Zehra Fazal.
An academic fascination with Takarazuka stuck with me throughout my years as an undergraduate. But dammit, more than simply reading about the Revue for classes, I wanted to experience the insanity of the theatre myself, in person!
I had the chance to see my first Takarazuka show in the Spring of 2003, when I was studying in Kyoto for a semester at the Stanford Center. My friend Oliver had the foresight to pass off our desire to get a Revue fix as an academic outing, and school footed the bill (thanks, Stanford!). Getting tickets for a show is not easy, as they don’t accept international or cell phone calls to their ticket office. A teacher at the Center helped make our reservation, and our small group of four dudes set out to see our first show. In the buzzing audience before the curtains opened, we were the only foreigners, and in a very small minority of men. The show itself was amazing, longer than Lord of the Rings, and moderately incomprehensible. The opening half of this particular performance was a historical piece set in the Kamakura Period about a magic flute and samurai drama.
Every show follows a set pattern, with a drama up front - either a historical “Japanese” piece or a western standard. Cole Porter and Gershwin make common appearances. Occasionally contemporary western stories or manga will serve as the original source for the adaptation, such as stagings of West Side Story, or Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack and Ribon no Kishi.
The second half of a show is where it gets really good, following a very loose (and often sorta interchangeable) plot that provides many, many opportunities for the cast to strut, dance, and show off their singing voices and costumes. This part is visual madness - an often quite literal display of peacock feathers - and ends with the entire cast on stage and venturing out in the audience along the hanamichi (flower bridge), which juts from the stage out into the audience seating area. The top stars of the show end the production with a long and adoring standing ovation, with the otokoyaku getting special love from the crowd.
It was like taking acid and getting punched in the face with a rose made of glitter. We loved it. Afterward, we bought commemorative photographs of otokoyaku dressed as Dracula and generals for our wallets.
My second (and most amazing trip) came later that summer. As part of my program, I had interned at a gracious and cool non-profit in Osaka. They worked closely with local businesses, and as a result had tickets to an appreciation event at Takarazuka put on annually by Hankyu Railroad, the Revue's parent company. I tagged along with my former boss and her mom, who was a Takarazuka super fan and flew in from Taiwan just for the event.
After seeing a performance at the Grand Theatre (with great seats!), our group of around 75 people were taken up on stage after the show. We posed alongside three actresses in full-out crazy peacock gear. We even got to stand on the famous staircase, a fixture of the final dance number of each performance! (See me in the upper-right corner of the photograph below, in the red shirt.)
Next, we were taken to a reception backstage. In attendance and mingling with the various businesspeople and freeloaders like me were over three dozen stars from various Takarazuka troupes. The stars were taller than everyone else in the room (all 5’10” and up), and infinitely more fashionable. They were beyond charismatic as they gave speeches, hanging out around the exquisite sushi luncheon, obliged the fans (mostly, the wives of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto executives) for photographs, and made small talk. The otokoyaku top stars were the most self-contained, as well as the most sought-after for pictures and autographs.
There were some younger actresses in the crowd, and me as a skinny white dude stuck out in the crowd of folks like a sore thumb. I gravitated toward Jun Shibuki and Emi Kurara, (or did they gravitate to me?) who looked like a insanely fashionable gothic lolita couple; Jun, an otokoyaku, wore a striking hip-hop-meets-Vivienne Westwood black outfit, and Emi, a musumeyaku, rocked a red bob with bangs, and a cute and expensive-looking layered goth dress.
They were into me, this weird white fanboy. I chattered at them in Japanese about how awesome the show had been, where I was from in America and about living in Osaka. There were really surprised that I knew anything about Takarazuka, and even more shocked that I had studied the theatre in college courses and had been to more than one performance already. They laughed a lot and cracked jokes about how weird of a fan I was, and told me my Japanese was excellent and complimented my style and haircut. Needless to say, I fell immediately in love with both of them.
I mingled a bit more, shamelessly introducing myself to the actresses and asking to take photos with them. In that short afternoon, I met such stars as Hanafusa Mari (Top musumeyaku of Cosmos Troupe), Wao Youka (former Top Star of Cosmos Troupe), Hizuki Hana (former Top Star of Cosmos Troupe), Mizu Natsuki (Top Star of Snow Troupe), Yamato Yuga, (former Top Star of Cosmos Troupe), Suzumi Shio (otokoyaku in Star Troupe), and Dan Rei (former Top Star of Moon and Star Troupes).
As a poor summer intern living on my own in Japan, I also took the opportunity to eat the hell out of the free and delicious buffet, stopping only to take part in various toasts and listen to thank you speeches from the actresses and directors to the local business community in attendance for their support of the theatre. The whole thing lasted about two hours, and I never felt shorter in a room full of Japanese ladies than I did that day.
As we left, I considered stealing a bottle of the sake on the tables, each one branded with one of the five Takarazuka Troupes’ names and logos. I chickened out from grabbing a bottle, but as I was leaving the room Jun and Emi waved vigorously and smiled at me from across the room. I beamed back at them, waving the entire way out the door and shouting random thanks and adorations in Japanese. It was a ridiculous and wonderful afternoon, and I included some dorky photos from the day in this issue for your enjoyment :)
Most recently, on a vacation to Japan with my girlfriend in 2008, I was able to attend my third performance a the Takarazuka Grande Theatre. The show this time was Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose’s Me and My Girl, and at the opening of the performance a new class of Takarasiennes graced the stage to be introduced to the audience of fans. Each year, a new class of students graduates to join the glittery stage of the Takarazuka Revue, keeping this now 90+ year old institution’s rich and fantastical tradition alive.
[For more pictures from my visit backstage at Takarazuka, please check out: http://tinyurl.com/ryantakarazuka]
To continue reading about Takarazuka, check out my in-depth interview with Takarazuka researcher and actress Zehra Fazal.
If you enjoyed this article and want to read it in print with additional photographs, you can purchase Electric Ant Zine #2 here.