With more than a century of history and performances staged all over the world, the Takarazuka theater continues to be very popular in Japan. The theatrical performance of this all-women troupe allows visitors to enter a fantastical space. The way gender is performed contributes to the immerging of the audience in this space and enables them to identify with the characters portrayed by the actresses.
The Takarazuka Revue is an all-women theater group that is based in Takarazuka City in the Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. All roles are performed by women and the musicals have an extravagant style with stories adapted from movies, novels, and manga. The Takarazuka theater was founded in 1913 by Kobayashi Ichiro, who was also president of Hankyu Railway. The group held its first performance in 1914 in the Paradise Theater, an indoor pool transformed into a stage. Its immediate success resulted in the group opening their own theaters. Currently, they own two theaters, the Takarazuka Grand Theater in Takarazuka City, and the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater, and five different troupes (Moon, Flower, Snow, Star, and Cosmos).
Posters of musicals performed by the Takarazuka Revue
Source: Hotel Kaesong. “Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre.”, October 13 2018. Accessed through https://www.flickr.com/photos/laika_ac/47445103841/in/photostream/
The actresses & the fans
To become an actress in the Takarazuka Revue, one must enroll in Takarazuka Music School’s two-year-long study program. This academy is very competitive and only accepts 40 students every year. During the two years of studies, the women will have to decide on the gender of the roles they want to play. They can either choose to play the musumeyaku (娘役), literally “the role of a young woman/daughter”, or they can choose the otokoyaku (男役), literally “the role of a man”. It is rare for actresses to switch between musumeyaku and otokoyaku once they have chosen their role, as they will be trained in either role specifically. After completing their training, the women will start their careers in one of the troupes, with the hope of becoming the Top Star or the leading musumeyaku. Every troupe has its pair of leading actresses, the Top Star, who plays the role of the otokoyaku, and their partner, the leading musumeyaku.
As for the audience of Takarazuka, the majority are women, although there is also a small but growing group of men attending the performances. Some of these visitors, mainly middle-aged, married women, are joining fan clubs of their favorite Top Stars. These fan clubs arrange group tickets for the shows, and also organize activities outside of the Takarazuka Revue, like tea parties. The members can feel a form of comradery with people through these clubs, and for many it reminds them of their days in high school or college when they often took part in school clubs. A unique feature of these fan clubs is that they are centered around one particular Top Star, and when the actress retires from the theater, the fan club disbands as well.
An interesting point is that among fans, the otokoyaku is much more popular than the musumeyaku, which you can see when you look at the fan clubs, that only center around Top Stars. But why is the otokoyaku so popular? Part of the explanation lies in the way they portray gender.
Gender is a very important part of Takarazuka. An ideal image of gender is carefully created through kata, which are aspects of language, appearance, behavior, and attitude that have been coded as masculine or feminine. Through kata, young aspiring actresses learn ‘how to act like a woman’ or ‘how to act like a man’. However, it is important to notice that the idea of gender created through kata is very different from the one in mainstream Japanese society. Most notably, otokoyaku provides a different ideal for masculinity, as their portrayal tends to be more androgynous and possesses both masculine and feminine characteristics, blurring the line between masculinity and femininity. The way the actresses perform gender on stage is a very important part of the musical. This is above all true for the otokoyaku actresses that are adored by many fans, both men and women. The otokoyaku often seem to portray the ideal image of a man: handsome, pure, kind, emotional, charming, funny, intelligent, and romantic. The attractiveness of the otokoyaku lies in the way gender is portrayed. For female audiences, the otokoyaku helps them enter a fantasy realm, somewhere outside space and time. In an article written by Karen Nakamura and Hisako Matsuo, one woman who frequents the Takarazuka Revue explains that when she looks at how the musumeyaku tries to portray a perfect image of femininity, she feels painful, like she is looking at herself trying to attain this perfection. However, when she sees the otokoyaku actresses who , she feels excited. Often, women are not able to fully enjoy other media because they can neither identify with the female characters that strive for this perfection nor can they identify with the male characters because of their stereotypical masculinity. In Takarazuka, women find someone to identify with in the otokoyaku. They can surge themselves into the story and enter a fantasy space to enjoy their time away from reality. The same goes for the men who are visiting the Takarazuka Revue. Contrary to what you might expect, men are also drawn to the otokoyaku, because they provide an alternative to their masculinity. It allows them to enter this fantasy space and escape from the expectations of society. For both men and women, it is easy to identify with and surge into the characters portrayed by the otokoyaku.
The Takarazuka Revue has a long history and continues to be popular. The unique way in which these actresses perform gender in the theater contributes to the joy of the audience. The way the otokoyaku balances femininity and masculinity allows the audience to identify with the characters and live in a short-term fantasy as a form of escapism. If you ever have the chance to get your hands on some tickets, I believe it is worth a trip to the Takarazuka Revue and experience the magic they make.
Pascalle is a first-year master’s student in Asian Studies at the Centre of East and Southeast Asian Studies. During her bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology, she got mainly interested in the topics of gender, popular culture, and contemporary Japanese society.