“She is the most handsome man you’ll ever see…” A Review Of Takarazuka Revue
Illustration from Watanabe Tsuneo, sexologist, in Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan by Jennifer Robertson.
This article was already published on this website in January 2012. Since Jake Adelstein took a couple of friends to The Black Swans’ Lake/黒鳥の湖 /(Kokucho no Mizuumi), in Shinjuku Kabukicho last Saturday night, we wanted to re-post this text as a reminder of our coverage of sexual politics in Japan. “Kokucho no Mizuumi” is a new-half cabaret.
Takarazuka will soon celebrate 100 years of existence.
Takarazuka Revue, is the 20th century version of Japanese Kabuki, the primary differences being it incorporates Western music and instead of all men playing both female and male roles, all the performers are all women. In Takarazuka, which has a cult like-following in Japan, the most esteemed role of all is that of the 男役 (otoko-yaku) : the part of the male.
The cultural ramifications and sexual dynamic of this entertainment empire are extremely well-covered in the book Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan by Jennifer Robertson.
Women perform all the male and female characters of the company’s musicals and shows; all the members of the troupe refer to themselves internally as “students.” Male role performers are granted a higher status in the company. About 400 members represent the whole company. Forty new members directly recruited by the Takarazuka music academy enter the professional troupe each year. Top stars usually spend 6 to 10 years as junior students.
Once she enters the company, the student will belong to one of the five kumi, (factions), such as the Hana Gumi (Flower Troupe), Tsuki Gumi (Moon Troupe), Yuki Gumi (Snow Troupe), Sora Gumi (Sky Troupe), Hoshi Gumi (Star Troupe). The word “kumi” or “gumi” in Japanese is also often used by Japanese criminal organizations in faction names but there is no Goto-gumi in the Takarazuka. Each troupe has a leader, and this position is acceded to members according to strict seniority. There are more than 70 members in each troupe. In every troupe, there is a designated top star in the male role and in the female role, both together they are the goruden conbi, ゴールデンコンビ, (golden combination). Women who reached this position have reached the highest pinnacle of success for a Takarazuka star.
The Takarazuka Opera Company performs in two main theaters: one in Takarazuka City, Hyogo Prefecture and a theater in Hibiya, Tokyo, (Subway A13).
Ichizo Kobayashi is the founder of this cultural institution and its origins date back to 1910. This businessman, who owned the Hankyu Railways in Osaka decided to build the first indoor swimming pool in Japan in the village of Takarazuka near Osaka, in order to attract clients who would have to use the rail ways to get to that area. Having created a non-heated mixed swimming pool, this entertainment place called paradaisu (“Paradise”) did not get the success he was expecting. However, in 1911, in Osaka, the the department store Mitsukoshi engaged a group of ten male singers and musicians in the western style in order to entertain the clients of the department store and it was a rousing success. Kobayashi immediately decided to rip off the idea, recruited about twenty girls, and taught them to sing. He transformed the indoor swimming pool into a gigantic theater, whose purpose was to entertain families and children. In the beginning, the girls were part of a singing choir, Takarazuka shoukaitai( 宝塚唱歌隊,aka the choir of Takarazuka), however Kobayashi insisted on adding the word shoujo, 少女 (young woman) to the name that he gave to his group in the naming of Takarazuka shoujo kageki yousei kai (宝塚少女歌劇養成会-the association of opera training young girls).
In 1913, Kobayashi’s institution was named Takarazuka Kageki Dan (宝塚歌劇団) (The Takarazuka Academy of Music). Kobayashi then founded a school of music and dancing. Young women who were recruited had to spend two years in the Academy before joining the Takarajiennu, タカラジエンヌ, (“Takarasiennes”) from the professional troupe. This is how a new bourgeois type of culture was created that was aimed at people who could afford to spend money for pleasure and fun.
What type of performance:
The production of Takarazuka includes also Japanese traditional type of plays, such as the Genji Monogatari (源氏物語–Tales of Genji), European style of plays, such as “Mon Paris”, and also Broadway style shows, such as West Side Story. The shows at Takarazuka were, in the beginning essentially addressed to an audience of children, however the style soon became erotic and politically engaged. In general, the theater never represented contemporary Japan, except during the 1930’s and 1940’s, when certain military subjects were treated. Japanese people or society were almost never represented. The show offered the Japanese people a chance to dream of lives in other parts of the world.
The actresses of Takarazuka are recruited according to esthetic and physical criteria, such as their beauty, their height (taller than average for otokoyaku, 男役, (male performers), their voice and the shape of their face (square face, if possible, for the otokoyaku). Just by naming these criteria, we can see that clichés for male roles are established from the start.
During the first years of Takarazuka, in the 1910’s, the joyuu, 女優, (actresses, female comedians) were not viewed favorably by the public. They were judged as being decadent and leading a life of independent women. To which, Kobayashi has responded by creating an academy for young women who attend “school” as seito, 生徒, (students). This made it sound like the girls were not professional performers. This understanding also assured the parents that they had placed their child in a good school, where education was very strict and traditional. “Takarasiennes” was a name to refer to the term in vogue parijiennu, パリジエンヌ, (“Parisiennes”) or parisians. The Takarasiennes are hierarchized within the academy of music and dance. They have to study during two years and hold a relationship of sempai/kouhai, 先輩/後輩, (elder/smaller sisters) between the first year and second year students. This means that the kouhai have to respect the senpai and they have to clean the music and dancing rooms without electrical equipment such as vacuum cleaners. The teachers at Takarazuka are convinced that intense work and hardship education shapes the characters of the students. Men are also strictly prohibited from coming inside the academy. Takarazuka allowed young Japanese women to participate to artistic culture and more precisely allowed women work as artists in contemporary theatrical culture. There were very few actresses and singers during the early days of Takarzuka but the quasi-academic setting protected the image of its performers and reassured society that these women were engaged in a legitimate enterprise.
When Kobayashi started his musical company, he did not want the public to imagine that the Takarasiennes were delinquents. He played with the terms of designation to preserve the “purity and innocence” of his dancers. He has defined the brand image of his product: he made clear that his recruits come from wealthy families and that after they spent years within Takarazuka, his actresses were “ready” to become virtuous women, knowing how to take care of men and how to educate correctly their children. He therefore followed the myth of the “good wife/wise mother”, according to the term used by Jennifer Robertson, in Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (1998). This concept seems to have been invented during the Meiji period in order to catalyze society. Kobayashi even pretended that the young woman who graduated from his academy were going to be more disciplined and suited for family life because his school guided them in a healthy path and without direct relationship with men from the outside.
Takarazuka, at its start, present some characteristic of paternalism. Young Japanese women were trained to become model housewives. It seems that Kobayashi even tried to control his girls even after they retired, by ensuring a decent marriage with a respectable and rich man. This shows, once again, the importance of “economic” marriage for women (in Japan) and in general.
Language in Theater:
In the Japanese language, the speech of each gender is much more distinct than in most of other languages. For example, in French or in English, there is not more than one way to refer to oneself, as a person with male genitals or female genitals. When we refer to ourselves, we say “I”. In Japanese, at oral speech, females and males use the pronoun watashi or watakushi, 私, in order to designate themselves. However, females usually do not use or cannot use (although nowadays, anything is possible!) the pronouns ore, 俺, or boku, 僕, these terms are used by males.
Media controversy in the 1930’s:
In 1939, when the media turned against Takarazuka for the first time, the actresses, especially the otokoyaku actresses performing male figures were seriously been discredited. One of the first scandals of lesbianism had been denounced in the press at that moment. Effectively, these women disguised as men and imitating male voice and speech, with short hair were beginning to worry the public opinion. What actually worried the Japanese society was more the sudden love of the young Japanese women for the western culture and these otokoyaku.
Many of the fans seems to have been mature or married women, but what was unacceptable for the Japanese society in general were the pubescent and pre-pubescent shoujo, 少女, whose sexuality was beginning to be “deviant” or “deviating” by the Takazuka actresses. Official measures have been taken to put these young girls on the “right path” and to direct them into their femininity so that they could enter the symbolic adulthood described by the Restoration. The modern Japanese woman, as Robertson describes her to us readers in her book, was “fascinating, attractive, weak and different”, that is why it was desirable for men to control her. However, this soon began to be a necessity, because the woman was beginning to be “dangerous, strong and indifferent”. The Japanese state showed a strong will to describe the ideal shojo and a strong will to operate to contribute to form patriarchal military institutions, which idealized heterosexuality.
Kobayashi, the founder of Takarazuka was not a feminist, however he seemed to openly criticize society centered on masculinity. He was the first to wish that theater and opera were accessible to women as much as to men. Kobayashi seems to have used his Takarazuka actresses to circulate the ideal image of male and female behavior within the family cell. While bowing to the sexual politics of the times, he also seemed to subvert the culture and allow women greater access to the world of the performing arts. However, as the times have changed, Takarazuka has not. It will be interesting to see how or if it survives into the next century.