Culture Shock · Drama · Information · Japanese Pop Culture · Living in Japan · Music

Gender Bending with Feathers

Today is time for an exciting announcement!

Snow Troupe’s version of The Rose of Versailles

First, a little back story. While I was still a graduate student at Willamette University working towards my degree in Japanese Studies, I took a class focusing on “cross-cultural communication” between America and Japan. Essentially, this meant that there were Japanese students in the class and we studied Japanese culture. Twice during the semester we had to give presentations on a topic of choice. The first had to be on something from traditional Japan and the second something from contemporary Japan. For my first presentation I chose to do a presentation on Kabuki (highly stylized classical Japanese dance-drama with only male actors). For my second presentation I wanted to do something connected to the ancient art of Kabuki and remembered something that one of my JSP friends had been a BIG fan of: Takarazuka (also known as Takarazuka Revue).
So, what exactly is Takarazuka? Well, it’s an all-female theater founded in the city of Takarazuka, Japan. Women play both the male and female roles in lavish, Broadway-style productions complete with lots of glitter, feathers, and women who put most male actors to shame. Seriously, check out this video of my favorite Takarazuka actress singing with a famous male musical actor (He played Fiero in the Japanese version of WICKED I believe).
The video won’t let me embed it, so just click on this link: watch Asato-san prove that she is more masculine.
You can find my presentation here:
However, I do not have all the information there (poorly summarized so that I could talk for over 20 minutes on the topic), so forgive me as I go into more detail than probably most people want to know.
History of the Revue
The Takarazuka Revue was founded in 1913 by Kobayashi Ichizou (1873-1957). Kobayashi was a industrialist and politician who was the president of Hankyu Railways at the time, and the city of Takarazuka was situated right
at the stop of a Hankyu line. Already a popular tourist destination for its famous hot springs, Takarazuka seemed like the ideal spot to open up an attraction of some sort that would boost train ticket sales and draw in even more business for the city. The Kabuki theater (an all-male theater troupe, founded by a woman in 1600) was already well established, though Kobayashi considered their ideas to be very old and elitist and thought that an all-female theater group might be well received.
Western-style musicals were getting more and more popular at the time, and a cast of young, chaste women performing clean, family friendly shows was an attractive idea. During a time when public kissing was frowned upon, the fact that such scenes were implied rather than acted out, and that both actors were women, made such scenes acceptable to the general public.
Kobayashi titled his theater group the “New Citizens’ Theater.” Their first performance was in 1914, and the shows became successful enough that in 1924 they were able to get their own 3000-seat theater building, the Daigekijou (Grand Theater) in Takarazuka; Kobayashi built it in connection with the Hankyu amusement park “Takarazuka Family Land.” (The park closed on 4/7/03, but parts of it reopened in 9/03, now called the “Garden Fields.” It serves as a garden and dog park.) Takarazuka was the first troupe to introduce the revue-style show to Japan with their 1927 performance, “Mon Paris.” By 1938 they were touring Europe and North America, as well as making visits to China and other countries. In 1940 they changed their name to Takarazuka Kagekidan (officially translated as the “Takarazuka Revue Company”) and divided into four troupes: “Flower,” “Moon,” “Snow” and “Star,” with an additional “Special Course” that was used for older actresses (40 and up) who did not wish to retire yet. By 1998, the number of actresses had grown to the point that they added a sixth troupe, the “Cosmos” troupe.
The Music School
All members of Takarazuka are graduates of the Takarazuka Music School,which Kobayashi founded in 1913 as a way to attract young girls from goodfamilies to his theater group and train them to perform on his stage. At
first, he’d simply built an indoor pool in Takarazuka, but later covered it with a wooden stage and hired local girls to sing and dance. The shows were successful, but there was a shortage of local talent, and so
Kobayashi decided to open a school to train girls specifically for his stage. At the time, a woman on stage in Japan was nearly unheard of; and so the school was billed as a place that would train girls to be “good
wives and wise mothers” while also providing them with education in the arts. The school motto is “kiyoku tadashiku utsukushiku”; Be pure, be proper, be beautiful.
The school has become so popular that well-to-do families will train their daughters for years in preparation for the entrance exams, which are similar to auditions and include personal interviews, vocal testing, and testing of ballet skill. Thousands of girls apply each year, and only 40 or 50 are actually accepted, so the competition is fierce. Only girls between 15 – 18 can apply. If accepted, they will have a strictly regimented schedule for the next two years, taking lessons from 9 – 5 each day in ballet, modern dance, traditional Japanese dance, tap, music history, theater history, singing, tea ceremony, English conversation, acting and etiquette, among others. Each student wears a school uniform, just like in most Japanese schools; the TMS uniform consists of a long gray skirt, matching gray jacket, white blouse and red tie.
The ((sempai-kouhai)) (senior-junior) relationship is built up right from the start. First-year students clean the school entirely by hand every day, under the watchful eye of the second-years. No electric cleaning appliances are allowed, which means mops, brooms, brushes and sometimes toothbrushes are their main cleaning implements. It has been said that this practice helps encourage humility and proper attitude, not to mention stamina, in the students right from the start. The first-years must walk along the edges of the school’s corridors, and bow and greet all older
students they meet. None of the students are allowed to date, and there is a 10 PM curfew. First year students live in dormitories, but second-years are allowed to share rooms.
At the end of the first year, it is decided whether each student will go on to become an otokoyaku (who plays male roles) or a musumeyaku (who plays female roles). This decision is based partially on the student’s own preference, and partially on looks, height, vocal capability, and so on. The otokoyaku is the most popular choice, as only otokoyaku can go on to become a top star in the troupe, and they generally have more fans and more attention; so the competition to become an otokoyaku is very high. There have occasionally been rumors of girls who have committed suicide when they did not get cast as an otokoyaku. Once the decision has been made, the students spend their second year of classes learning how to move, speak, and sing like the selected gender. The otokoyaku students learn techniques to deepen their voices, and masculinize their gestures and speech patterns. The musumeyaku are trained to be ultra-feminine, in order to better emphasize the masculinity of the otokoyaku.
After their second year, the students graduate, and appear on the Takarazuka stage in a traditional line dance that takes over a month of practice, six hours a day, to learn. Their participation in this line dance is a rite of passage that constitutes their debut in Takarazuka, and the year that they debut is an important classification among
Takarasiennes. The line dance is done in extreme Vegas-style, with the integral portion of the choreography being a series of perfectly synchronized high-kicks and traditional “Ha!” cheers from the dancers. After training for the line dance each girl is assigned to a Takarazuka troupe and becomes a member of the company.
The Troupes and Star System
Within the troupes, each actress has a grade (like in school), signifying how many years it has been since her debut. Takarazuka continues to place heavy emphasis on the ((sempai-kouhai)) relationships between the actresses, and older actresses are treated with great respect while the younger ones are expected to behave with humility and reverence for their seniors. The troupe leader, or kumicho, is the actress in each troupe who
debuted first, and she is assumed to be in charge of all of the younger actresses. The actresses who debuted first get preferential treatment: highest billing in programs, the best slots backstage, better hotel rooms, and better transportation while on local tour. Within the same grade, those actresses who received the highest marks in their debut class get ranked first. Each troupe has a top star, who receives the lead role in all productions until she retires. The average “reign” of a top star is about 36 months, or three years. The top star is always an otokoyaku.
There is also a musumeyaku top star, though she is always billed second.
The five troupes of the Takarazuka Revue have certain differences of style
and material which make each troupe unique.
The Flower Troupe is considered the “treasure chest” of otokoyaku. Their performances tend to have larger budgets, with lavish stage and costume designs, and are often derived from operatic material.
While it tends to be a home for young performers, the members of Moon Troupe are also strong singers. The term “Musical Research Department” is occasionally used in articles about the troupe, portraying the troupe’s focus on music. Their material tends towards drama and modern musicals. During the era of Makoto Tsubasa as top star, they had at least two musicals adopted from classic western novels and overall tend to be more Western and dramatically styled on stage.
Snow Troupe is considered the upholder of traditional dance and opera for the whole company, being the vanguard of traditional Japanese drama in a company that tends towards Western material. They were the first troupe to
perform Elisabeth in Japan. The troupe has been moving towards the opera and drama style that Moon and Flower perform in.
Star Troupe tends to be the home of the stars of Takarazuka. They, along with Flower Troupe, have very strong otokoyaku players.
Cosmos, the newest troupe of the company, is less traditional and tends to be more experimental. Cosmos were the first troupe to perform Phantom, and to have a Broadway composer (Frank Wildhorn) write their musical score. Most of the otokoyaku in this troop are above 170 cm.
Other popular or promising actresses, usually otokoyaku, are listed beneath the top star, and recently the company began moving all 2nd and 3rd-to-the-top stars into the Special Course, where they could be cast in any of the troupes’ productions rather than only their own. This was a controversial and generally unpopular move, as it meant fewer good roles for the lesser stars within a troupe; the good roles would go first to the top stars, then to the Special Course stars, and only then could the lesser stars hope to get a substantial role. However, it was done with the idea that such an arrangement would groom future top stars, so that when a top star retired, one of the Special Course actresses could take her place, without necessarily having been a member of that troupe before. This system has proved so unpopular, however, that it appears Takarazuka is fading it out.
To become a top star, an actress must work her way up through the troupe. Just because she is popular with fans doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll make it to the top (though having a strong fan base certainly doesn’t hurt). She must demonstrate greater-than-average skill in all the main areas of being a Takarasienne: dancing, singing, and acting, as well as overall likability and attractiveness to fans. She must be physically strong enough to lift her musumeyaku costars in their dance routines. Takarasiennes have a saying: otokoyaku juunen, “10 years to a male role,” as the otokoyaku competition is particularly fierce and difficult. Once established at the top, a star must maintain her popularity among her fans, as it is often the top star that draws most of the crowd to a particular show and bears the heaviest responsibility for the show’s success. Based on personal observation, it seems generally more important that a top otokoyaku be a good singer, and a top musumeyaku be a good dancer. Chemistry also helps a lot; a pair who has electric chemistry while on stage seems to inspire a lot of additional fan adoration. A top star pairing is referred to as a Golden Combination.
Takarazuka Lifestyle and the Fans
Takarasiennes are expected to maintain a chaste and virginal public image.All Takarasiennes must remain unmarried, and socialization with men isstrictly forbidden. No male visitors to the dorms, except for brothers and fathers, are allowed. The rules are slightly less strict for musumeyaku; they may be seen publically with men, though certainly not on a date or in a romantic context. Otokoyaku, however, have a public image to maintain and should not even be seen with a man. In spite of this, however, it seems that many actresses can get away with breaking the rules so long as they are discreet. Often a Takarasienne marries within months of retiring from the stage, and Anju Mira (a retired otokoyaku top star) even admitted to an English interviewer that she had a boyfriend for a while.
The most famous of the otokoyaku (my beloved Asato-san is among them).
Takarazuka seems to encourage the otokoyaku to appear masculine even when not on stage, for the sake of the fans, and so many of the otokoyaku tend to dress on the masculine side offstage, particularly for publicity appearances.
The actresses all live in dormitories, except for the top stars who may be able to have a private apartment. They are paid, though their wages are not outstanding; often the only way a top star can afford an apartment is to be sponsored by a wealthy fan. As to be expected any time you have a group of women living and working in close quarters, gossip is abundant, particularly as the rules of socialization are so strict. There have been
scandals and apparently even an occasional lesbian affair. The stars depend heavily on their fans for their quality of life, in some cases; some fans will make box lunches for their stars, drive them to and from rehearsals and shows, and protect them from overly enthusiastic fans, without asking for pay.
There are official fan clubs formed for various stars, usually about four or five years after an actress joins a troupe, and these fan clubs get special standing for show tickets, places in line outside the actresses’ theater e
ntrance, and so on. One must obtain the fan club’s permission in order to hand a letter or gift to the actress as she enters or exits the theater, for example. The fan clubs will also occasionally host members-only tea parties for their stars once per performance. The star herself makes an appearance, and there may be group photos, question and answer sessions and games.
The Takarazuka fan clubs have a culture all their own (my boyfriend’s mother is apparently a member); while waiting for their stars to arrive or leave, the fan clubs of the top stars, or older stars, take precedence in line over the fan clubs of the junior stars. Those in front sit or kneel when the stars appear, allowing people behind them to see. (It has been suggested that this is also a sign of respect to the star, keeping their eye-level lower than hers.) The Takarazuka fans have a strict code of conduct; there is no shouting, jostling, clapping, or touching the actresses, they do not ask for personal photographs with the star, and they try not to disturb passers-by. The idea is that if the fans behave badly, it will reflect badly upon their favorite star and could harm her public image. Takarasiennes do not have agents or publicity managers, so they rely heavily on their fan clubs to maintain their popularity, even though none of the fan clubs are officially endorsed by Takarazuka itself.
Most Takarazuka fans are young girls, from junior high through their mid-20’s. However, it is not uncommon to find very young children,grandmothers, and men among the fans as well. Often Takarazuka fandom seems to be a sort of family trait, passed down from mothers to their daughters, that can spawn generations of avid Takarazuka fans. Usually the core members of a fan club are in their 30s and 40s, old enough to serve as leaders for younger fans and usually well-off enough to be able to afford a constant stream of performance tickets, and possibly even
financially support their favorite star. Many studies have been done as to the appeal of the Takarazuka, particularly to the female population. The romance depicted in Takarazuka plays is a sort of feminine ideal; Kabuki actors who play women have been said to embody ideal femininity, but Takarazuka otokoyaku strive to create an imagined romantic hero, who delivers flowery impassioned speeches and shows a depth of sensitivity that captures the hearts and imaginations of their female audience. One news article even described Takarazuka as the sexual fantasy of women; let men have their pornography, women have Takarazuka! This statement may be taking the subject a bit to the extreme, but there is definite safety to a romance that is portrayed Takarazuka-style; all the intense (and sometimes melodramatic) passion, with raw sexuality left mostly up to the imagination.
It has been estimated that the audience for Takarazuka is 90 percent female and in the world of literature there are two primary theories as to what draws these women to Takarazuka. One theory states that the women are drawn to the lesbian overtones inherent in Takarazuka. As one author states: “It was not masculine sexuality which attracted the Japanese girl audience but it was feminine eroticism. The rival theory is that the girls are not drawn to the implicit sexuality of Takarazuka, but instead are fascinated by the otokoyaku (the women who play male roles) “getting away with a male performance of power and freedom”. Jennifer Robertson (whose book I own) favors the first theory. In Takarazuka, she observes that lesbian themes occur in every performance, simply by virtue of the fact that women play every role. The audience clearly picks up on this aspect of Takarazuka and responds to it. Within the first ten years from the founding of Takarazuka the audience was vocally responding to the apparent lesbianism. Female fans wrote love letters to the otokoyaku (women playing the male roles). In 1921 these letters were published and several years after that publication the newspapers and public started up a cry against Takarazuka, which was quickly becoming a “symbol of abnormal love”. In order to combat this, the women were kept in strict living conditions and were no longer allowed to associate with their fans. Robertson mentions a phenomenon of “S” or “Class S” love. In this particular style of love the women who have been influenced by Takarazuka return to their daily lives and feel free to develop crushes on their female classmates or coworkers. This type of romance is typically fleeting and is seen in Japanese society as more of a phase in growing up rather than true lesbian behavior. Robertson sums up her theory well in the following: “many females are attracted to the Takarazuka otokoyaku because she represents an exemplary female who can negotiate successfully both genders and their attendant roles and domains” The competing theory, supported by Erica Abbitt, is that the female audience of Takarazuka is drawn not exclusively by lesbian overtones, but rather by the subversion of stereotypical gender roles. Japan is a society notorious for its rigid conception of gender roles (despite a rather androgynous appearance). Even in Takarazuka the original goal of the show was to create the ideal good wife and wise mother (an idea that was conceptualized in Japan’s Meiji Period). While this may have been the goal off stage, on stage gender roles are (by necessity) subverted. The otokoyaku must act the way men are supposed to act. This subversion of the roles that the average woman in Japan finds herself trapped in has a strong appeal. Abbitt also says a large portion of the appeal of Takarazuka comes from something she calls “slippage”. This slippage refers to the enjoyment derived from a character portraying something they are not, in this case a female portraying a man. Abbitt does not deny the presence of lesbian overtones within Takarazuka, but proposes that the cause for the largely female audience has more to do with this subversion of societal norms rather than sexual one.
Takarazuka is not a lifetime career, and most stars retire between the ages of 25 and 30, as a Japanese woman is generally expected to be married by 25. After retirement, they are free to marry, or further their careers as actresses and singers, or choose an entirely different career if they prefer. Many an otokoyaku fan has been sorely disappointed when their favorite star retires and suddenly begins wearing skirts and accepting female roles in movies or on stage…that’s probably part of the reason the otokoyaku tend to maintain their masculine image offstage during their Takarazuka careers. A few stars who have finished their run as a top star or have entered their 40’s and just aren’t ready to leave the Takarazuka yet can get transferred into the Special Course. From there they can make guest appearances in any performance of the troupes, but often do not have to maintain such a rigorous and continuous rehearsal schedule.
A Typical Performance
Each troupe puts on two shows per year at the Takarazuka Grand Theater,and one show per year at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater. Throughout the restof the year they do other performances at Bow Hall (a smaller theater in Takarazuka), Theater Drama City (a theater in Osaka), Tokyo Youth Hall, and other smaller theaters around the country. Occasionally they will even do international tours.
A typical performance at one of the main theaters consists of both a musical and a revue show. The musical is generally similar to a Western musical, with a continuous storyline, a spoken script interspersed with song and dance numbers, beautiful costumes (the top stars get the most ornate and detailed costumes) and elaborate sets. The revue show is a set of song and dance numbers, mostly, with outrageous Vegas-style costumes, lots of feathers, and intricate choreography. Occasionally when the musical portion is longer than normal, the revue portion will be shorter than normal, but in general the musical and revue are about equal in terms of how long each takes. One night per show run, the junior members of the troupe will put on their version of the musical, with lesser stars cast in the main roles. This gives the younger actresses some valuable stage and star experience, and equally valuable exposure to the public.
Takarazuka puts on a wide variety of shows, from Western adaptations of Phantom of the Opera and Guys and Dolls, to musical versions of Western movies like Gone with the Wind, to traditional Asian storylines (Japanese,
Chinese and Korean) that are less familiar to Western audiences. Sometimes they make up their own storylines, or take specific historical figures (JFK and James Dean, for example) and perform musical biographies of their lives. The shows are heavily influenced by Western culture, particularly the United States and France.
The structure of the stage itself, at least in the two main theaters in Takarazuka and Tokyo, is designed to allow great versatility and access to the stars. The heavy theater curtains are often especially designed for specific
performance. There are several trap-doors at various places onstage. The entire center portion of the stage was built as a separate circular rotating platform, so the sets can occasionally be rotated in a slow circle in the middle of the show. The orchestra pit is surrounded in front by a narrow strip of stage, about a yard wide, that Takarazuka calls the “silver bridge”. Often the blocking of both the musical and the revue show requires the actresses to walk out onto the bridge for dialogue or during certain songs, allowing those in the front row to get an amazingly up-close view. The silver bridge has steps leading down to the aisles, and the actresses have been known, during some performances, to actually come down among the audience and walk around during certain songs! One of the most famous aspects of the Takarazuka stage is the grand stairway that is rolled out during the finale (and occasionally during the revue numbers) for the stars to walk down, or dance on. This stairway has a line of lights on each step, and occasionally has other special lighting effects.
So, what does this have to do with me? Well, if you were reading carefully you will have noticed that I mentioned my boyfriend’s mother is a fan of Takarazuka. While doing my research on Takarazuka for my presentation, I feel in love with one of the musicals called Elisabeth because of two songs I happened to find on the internet. Here are the songs:
最後のダンス・The Last Dance

闇が広がる・The Darkness Spreads

Elisabeth is originally German-language musical portraying the life and death of the Empress consort of Austria, Elisabeth of Bavaria, wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. The show opens somewhere purgatory, where Luigi
Lucheni is being interrogated by a celestial Judge as to why he has murdered the Empress Elisabeth, a continuous punishment for his deed that has lasted for over one hundred years. Lucheni claims that he was coerced to murder Elisabeth by the Emrpess herself and her lover. He tells the Judge that all her life, Elisabeth was the mistress of none other than Death itself. As his witnesses, Lucheni brings back the dead aristocracy of the bygone era and takes us to the past, where he serves as a bitter sarcastic narrator of the events that lead to the transformation of the sweet and innocent Sisi to the revered and infamous Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Hungary.
You can read a summary of the musical here:
And here is the official website for the musical:
So, what does this mean for me? Well, this summer Takarazuka in Tokyo is going to perform this very musical and my boyfriend’s mother bought tickets for me to go see it!
The version of the musical that I feel in love with was done by the Cosmos Troupe with its otokoyaku being the infamous Shizuki Asato who was the founding otokoyaku star for the troupe. While I wish Asato-san would be playing Death (Dear Tod) in the version of Elisabeth that I will be going to see, I will not be seeing a production done by the Cosmos Troupe, but instead a version presented by the Moon Troupe.
The lead will be played by a woman with the stage name Sena Jun (named after her father’s favorite racer and mother’s high school schoolmate, who is also a former Takarasiennes (Ariake Jun, the former vice troupe
president of Moon Troupe). Not only has she been the top otokoyaku for the Moon Troupe since 2005 where she debuted as a top star as Jack Worthing(Ernest) in the musical adaption of The Importance of Being Ernest, but she was previously the top musumeyaku for both the Flower Troupe and the Moon Troupe playing the lead role of Elisabeth. She is the only actress in the history of the company who has pictured / will have pictured both Elisabeth (Moon 2005) and Der Tod (Moon 2009) in Takarazuka productions of Elisabeth – Ai to Shi no Rondo, and even Luigi Lucheni (Flower 2002-03). She is the rather attractive looking “man” you see before this paragraph. The picture below is the same girl playing Elisabeth in 2005 with the Moon Troupe.
On the other hand, the woman who will be playing opposite Sena-san as Elisabeth has been a member of the Cosmos Troupe as an otokoyaku and has not played a female role before Elisabeth. Her name is Nagina Ruumi and despite graduating the top in her class from the Takarazuka Music School, seems to have flown under the radar in terms of her roles in the musicals. She made her debut in 2003, but has not captured the lead role as an otokoyaku yet. Perhaps what the Revue is trying to do is have her following in the footsteps of Sena-san? I am interested to see how all her years of being an otokoyaku transfer to her role as Elisabeth. Talk about an adjustment!
There are three different women playing the role of Elisabeth’s son Rudolph, but I am personally hoping that the day I go and see it Asumi Rio is playing the role. I know almost nothing about her, but just looking at pictures of her out of costume and in costume and the fact that her favorite food is “apricot seed tofu” makes me like her the best.
There are some other interesting productions happening this year and a few of them I would not mind going to see including a musical interpretation of Zorro. See the below picture…
I will be sure to file a full review of the musical when I go and see it this summer. Now, I think you have seen and read enough about shinnyy cross-dressing Japanese people for one day.


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