Singing, dancing & Japanese ladies in drag: It’s Takarazuka theatre

Takarazuka Theatre (Photo by Anime & Manga Japan Net)

By Natalie Oram

As a foreigner with little knowledge of Japan, but a love of all things theatre, I was sure to come across Takarazuka revue eventually. Takarazuka is definitely a part of Japan that I am glad to have experienced.

The first thing I noticed about Japan is how shy and quiet Japanese people and Japanese culture can be. Everything is done slowly as to follow Zen Buddhist meditations. However, Takarazuka is not shy and not quiet. In fact, Takarazuka is quite hard to ignore. I remember the first time I found out about Takarazuka, I was walking round Umeda Hankyu station, on my way to do some more shopping when the big screen in the atrium caught my eye. Like most inquisitive people, I can’t ignore new things, especially in Japan and especially on TV. On the big screen I saw what seemed to be just a normal musical. I normally don’t fancy musicals in Japan because they change the words and sometimes even the tunes, but this was different. I could not quite put my finger on it till it suddenly dawned on me that all the performers were women!

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To us Western folk this may not seem so strange because we have films like “Tootsie” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” as well as all male ballets, but just how often do you see women in drag? Females in drag are simply not that popular, possibly because it is not that taboo or odd. However, in Japan it is a little more out there because Japanese women just seem so much more feminine than Western women. Most Japanese ladies walk around Hiroshima wearing pretty pastel-coloured dresses partnered with sun protection gloves, hats and a parasol overhead. You also seldom come across adult tomboys or lesbians. In Takarazuka women play all the roles, much as men did in Shakespeare’s time. Though, they seem to take the step beyond that of a woman acting as a man. The Takarazuka actresses become men or rather an androgynous combination of the two. Generally though, Japanese men are not as bulky and hairy as Western men, so this does make the male role for Takarazuka actresses easier to fill.

That said, it still takes a lot of training for the female actresses to become believable men on stage. Those who train to be the male actors or otokoyaku only train for that role. They cannot play women. They cut their hair short, practice the manner of walking like men, behaving like men and even lowering their voice to sound like men. This was perhaps the most striking part for me as the deep voice really helps make the entire package believable. When Takarazuka formed in 1914 there were actual men who were employed as actors, but by 1954 women took over all their leads. Takarazuka can thus be seen as a loud cheer for feminism in Japan. Many believe that the females in the audience enjoy watching Takarzuka for this reason. They admire the actresses’ bravery to act against social norms.

Despite all the background information I learned, nothing could prepare me for the Takarazuka experience. It really is like none other, and the audience is a special kind. I am sure you often see the ladies at coffee shops sharing conversations over cake. Imagine that all these ladies in Hiroshima Prefecture gather into one audience and you have the typical Takarazuka audience. After mentioning to my Japanese friends that I was going to watch a Takarazuka performance I got very strange looks and gulps of breath, so I thought for sure the fans are overzealous drag-loving fans. But no, the audience is quite normal. There were even some young men who came with their girlfriends and old ladies with their daughters and granddaughters. But do bear in mind that beneath their ordinary exterior hides a crazed fan. This you will realise at the end of the show at the gift shops when you are being knocked over by ladies with baskets brimmed full of souvenirs. The souvenir shop must make a packet because Takarazuka revues are always performing new shows. This is made possible by the five troupes within the Takarazuka umbrella. Each troupe is said to be different from the other and so you probably should see them all perform to be considered a true fan. The five troupes are named after things found in nature: “Flower”, “Moon”, “Star”, “Cosmos” and “Snow”.

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I was very lucky to see the “Star” troupe perform as they are said to be particularly strong in otokoyaku. This was most certainly needed for “The Scarlet Pimpernel!”, for which the leads are mostly male. This musical is a Western musical based on the novel by Baroness Orctzy. This Takarazuka production was actually directed by a man, Koike Schuuichirou. He has directed many of the Takarazuka productions including the Star Troupe in “Legend Ver. II”, which I am sure you have seen advertised in the JR trains. This runs from June 26 to July 27 in the Grand Theater. The advertisement shows the image of warriors with swords. Judging by the fantastic sword fights in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” I am sure “Legend Ver. II” will be equally as exciting. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” was completely done in Japanese but they did not lose the magic of the music from the original production. The actors are so well rehearsed and express their emotions in such a way that even someone with no knowledge of Japanese could understand what was happening.

However, the ending kind of blew me away, but in the wrong way. One minute we were experiencing the sadness of the “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, the next minute the actors were surrounded by women in bright sparkles and huge feathers. Kind of like something I would expect to see in Las Vegas, minus the boobies. This appears to be the most popular part of the show. One of my guy friends in Hyogo Prefecture was dragged to one of these variety-style Takarazuka performances. Hyogo is close to the main Takarazuka theatre, so the ladies he went with go quite regularly. I suppose they figured he would prefer the variety-style performance over a serious story but it was all too much sparkle and insanity for a first-timer. Fortunately Takarazuka Revue caters to all tastes, with adaptations of Western novels, operas and musicals as well as Japanese novels, manga and even video games. Be sure to check out the adverts in the train and the Takarazuka website at http://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/ so you too can experience Takarazuka.

How to get to the Takarazuka Grand Theater:

Address: 1-1-57 Sakaemachi, Takarazuka-city, Hyogo 665-855

Phone: 0570-00-5100

  • From Umeda (Osaka)

Take the express train on the Takarazuka Line from Hankyu Umeda Station. Get off at Takarazuka Station and then walk 10 minutes. (It takes about 35-40 minutes.)

  • From Sannomiya (Kobe)

Take the limited express train on the Kobe Line from Hankyu Sannomiya Station and change at Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi Station to the Hankyu Imazu Line. Get off at Takarazuka Station and then walk 10 minutes. (It takes about 35-40 minutes.)

  • From Shin-Osaka (Osaka)

1.) Take the JR Tokaido Line from Shin-Osaka Station and change at Osaka Station to the Fukuchiyama Line. Get off at Takarazuka Station and then walk 10 minutes. (It takes about 40ー45 minutes.)

2.) Take Midosuji Subway Line from Shin-Osaka Station and change at Umeda Station to the Hankyu Takarazuka Line. Take the express train and get off at Takarazuka Station, and then walk 10 minutes. (It takes about 50-55 minutes.)

One thought on “Singing, dancing & Japanese ladies in drag: It’s Takarazuka theatre

  1. As someone who has studied Takarazuka as a graduate student, I have to say that there’s quite a lot of good information on Takarazuka and gender out there.

    Jennifer Robertson’s work on Takarazuka is excellent.
    http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue2/leoniereview.html

    http://www.amazon.com/Takarazuka-Sexual-Politics-Popular-Culture/dp/0520211510

    TakaWiki has information about shows: http://www.takarazuka-revue.info/tiki-index.php

    And there are lots of bloggers and others who write about Takarazuka:
    http://odorunara.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/a-kiss-is-just-a-fake-kiss/

    http://electricantzine.com/ea2-revue.html

    http://electricantzine.com/ea2-zehra.html

    Additionally, you write that “Those who train to be the male actors or otokoyaku only train for that role. They cannot play women.” Actually, strong female roles like Scarlet O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Oscar de Jarjeyes (The Rose of Versailles) and Elisabeth of Austro-Hungary (Elisabeth) have been played by otokoyaku.

    “You also seldom come across adult tomboys or lesbians [in Japan].” The outward presentation of cultural gender varies by time, space, and culture. There ARE femme lesbians, after all. In Louis XIV’s time, shapely calves and flowing locks were the epitome of beauty–for men. Gender expression is not static. You’re right that many Japanese women present more femme that American women, but that doesn’t mean that lesbians and tomboys doesn’t exist.

    The issues of why the fans go to the theatre, the gender of the otokoyaku, etc. are too complex to be fully addressed in a blog comment. However, I highly recommend that people interested in Takarazuka or planning to attend a show do some research first to see what Takarazuka is all about. It’s as fascinating as it is complex.

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