Androgyny has thrived at the Takarazuka Revue Theatre in Takarazuka, Japan, for nearly a century. Today, the exotic Takarazuka Revue continues to play an essential role in the modernist culture and economy of the Kansai region of Japan. Takarazuka is also of great importance to 20th century Japanese history as well as to cultural and gender history overall. With a wide variety of historical or fictional plots, the plays fascinate the audiences and transport the spectators to exotic realms. Takarazuka is popular around the world partially because its stage actors are exclusively women; these women may play male and female roles alike. These androgynous women playing male roles are particularly famous and popular in Japan. The so-called otokoyaku depict men, and many spectators agree that these women are able to portray them with remarkable accuracy. They are manlier than men themselves, so to speak, and this aspect of androgyny makes Takarazuka unique, and is one reason for the success of the ‘revue of androgyny’.
The present paper will initially outline the history of the Takarazuka Revue to establish the differences in playing male and female roles in Takarazuka theatre. The paper will then explore why the concept of androgyny has been so successful in the case of the revue and why the ‘female men’ are so popular in Japan. There must be a reason for the success that has endured for nearly a century since the foundation of the Takarazuka Revue.
Takarazuka’s Vibrant History
The Takarazuka Revue was established in 1913 by Kobayashi Ichizô (1873-1957), who sought to develop a tourist destination near the final stop of the railroad he had established in the years prior1. Initially, a public swimming pool was slated to be built by Takarazuka station. This pool, which was called ‘Paradise’, failed since mixed sex bathing was not allowed in Japan at this time and the pool was not heated. Kobayashi recognized the failure of his plan and tried to find another solution. At this time, all-girl’s choruses that sang Western music had become famous throughout Japan, often performing in major department stores to entertain the customers. Kobayashi adapted this idea for his ‘Paradise’. Out of this first entertaining ensemble of young Japanese girls emerged the worldwide famous entertainment troupe of the Takarazuka Revue. Initially a local attraction, the female performers became well known throughout Kansai and finally throughout all of Japan. Many Japanese carried out a sort of pilgrimage to visit Takarazuka and see the famous young girls in their revue show. The fact that only women performed in the Takarazuka plays created a massive attraction for visitors from all around Japan, and even today from all around the world.
In 1919, Kobayashi carried on his vision by founding the forerunner of the Takarazuka Music Academy, which would recruit future ensembles. The following years of success meant great financial prosperity for the Takarazuka Revue, leading to another theatre opening in Tokyo. The Takarazuka boom seemed unstoppable. The first appearance of a Takarazuka play on a European stage was the logical consequence of its unbridled success in Japan. By the late 1930s, the group had toured Europe and the United States. As a consequence of the Western journey, Kobayashi himself deemed it necessary to incorporate some aspects of the Western Opera into his own playwriting (most of the early plays were written by Kobayashi himself) to give the Takarazuka ensemble a more Western image. Just as the Meiji government had done many decades earlier to achieve a ‘Japanese Westernization’2, Kobayashi blended Western and Japanese elements of art, music and performance. This created the current image of the Takarazuka Revue, and even today, one is able to observe influences such as that of the 1920s French revue in Takarazuka plays.
During Japan’s war campaigns in Asia until its defeat in 1945, the Takarazuka Revue was an instrument of propaganda. The ensembles toured Japan’s occupied territories, such as Manchuria, and performed plays supporting a unified Asian spirit based on the Japanese propaganda concept of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Irrespective of the fact that the plays followed the usual entertaining blend of theatre and music, the message was not widely accepted by its audiences. Asia had learned from recent history that Japan was not interested in abolishing imperialism, but rather in becoming a formidable imperialist power3.
After the war, Takarazuka returned to its original repertoire of plays based on ancient Japanese stories like the Tale of Genji or Western adaptions of revues. It seemed that the great times of Takarazuka were over, but in 1974, the troupe experienced a revival. The performance of ‘The Rose of Versailles’ (berusaiyu no bara) became a great success and led to a new era of the Takarazuka Revue. What followed was a worldwide boom of Takarazuka plays. Famous Hollywood movies like Gone with the Wind (1939) or Western musical like Elisabeth (1992) were adapted and helped to further Takarazuka’s worldwide success.
With two theatres in Takarazuka and Tokyo, the Takarazuka Revue, which consists of five troupes (hanagumi – flower group; tsukigumi – moon group; yukigumi – snow group; hoshigumi – star group; and soragumi – sky group), continues to tour regionally and internationally. Millions of people attend the Takarazuka performances, and television and radio broadcasts make the plays of the Revue accessible to Japanese living rooms as well. Even today, Takarazuka remains one of the most widely recognized ‘theatres for the masses’ (taishû engeki) (Kawasaki 173).
The androgyny of Takarazuka is visible through the so-called otokoyaku (male roles), the women who perform the male roles. The task of these actors is to depict the utmost masculinity. According to Kobayashi, they were not invented to create an alternative gender status of androgyny, but rather to glorify men and masculinity itself. Kobayashi saw the otokoyaku as exemplary men, and like the male actors on the Kabuki stage who performed female roles, saw them as fitting into a Japanese tradition of one sex accurately depicting roles of the opposite sex.
On the Takarazuka stage, female performers who play male roles do not generally play female roles. An otokoyaku does not play female roles because fandom regards their ‘male’ androgynous idols for their accuracy in depicting males. The otokoyaku usually become top stars on and off the stage and lie at the centre of star cults populated by millions of Takarazuka fans around the world. The androgynous females help to build an image of female power because they usually do not leave their otokoyaku image even when off stage they perform a more ‘male’ role, making them a permanent, authentic agent of androgyny. Due to this, the otokoyaku is an especially important part of the fan cult. Former otokoyaku stars like Makoto Tsubasa, Kou Minoru and many more are well remembered and adored until today.
Due to this existing image of strong ‘male’ females, the Takarasiennes, as they are called in the style of the Revue girls of Paris, are divided into ‘male’ and female actors from their education in the Takarazuka School. Tall and physically androgynous females become otokoyaku, short and more feminine females become the so-called musumeyaku, who perform female roles. The former seek to perfect their masculinity. Some otokoyaku become heavy drinkers and smokers to make their voices deeper and more masculine. Furthermore, they dress like men and adapt their male stage image to their private life. Even if Kobayashi wanted the Takarazuka girls to marry after their stage careers, lesbian tendencies of Takarazuka actors have always been part of public speculation. Nevertheless, the ‘male’ females have been essential to Takarazuka’s success.
The Roots of Takarazuka’s Success
Takarazuka seems to enjoy never-ending success. Although Takarazuka plays and productions were seen as stereotyped, naïve or romantic, the Revue theatre became a nationwide known attraction, because many western influences (e.g., dance, fashion, music etc.) made the performances exotic to the Japanese audience. Kawasaki has referred to this as “Takarazuka’s orientalism” (Kawasaki 61). The disparate elements of theatre art (combining traditional Japanese theatre as well as Western theatre) and its wide range of plots make Takarazuka unique. The productions include Japanese dramas and historical tales like the Tale of Genji as well as European or Broadway-based plays or global folk dances from many different countries. The union of many modern, Western elements with traditional Japanese elements is certainly responsible for the decades of Takarazuka success. Over this period, the Revue changed its face and style to meet with the altered needs of the audience and the times. The audience is offered an alternative reality where the fans are able to vicariously live their dreams of other lives in different and exotic worlds.
At first, it was the all-girls choir of Takarazuka Paradise that brought audiences to the theatre, but over time, the more female image begins to change. The slogan kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku (modesty, fairness, gladness) is still a well known part of the Takarazuka Revue, but year by year, the ‘male’ females became more important for the audience. The characteristic excess of the female theatre of exotic settings, flamboyant costumes, and convoluted scenarios that build a parallel world of melodrama, fantasy, ambiguous ethnicity, adventure, passion and romance — the otokoyaku is just another part of this fantastic world.
Japanese females are able to identify with the otokoyaku, who are strong, unapproachable, and invulnerable. In the somewhat sexist society of Japan, in which females are certainly relegated as the ‘weaker sex’, the ‘male’ females personify the wishes and needs of the predominantly female audience. This androgyny and its subconscious consequences make the Takarazuka Revue Theatre as well as the history of the otokoyaku such an enduring success. As long as there are females dreaming of a more exciting or empowered life in another world, they will be attracted by the Revue and its ‘male’ females.
To conclude, one must admit that androgyny is an especially important part of the history of Takarazuka, and that it has made the Revue’s success so enduring. Without the otokoyaku, Takarazuka would just be a female theatre troupe. There are not merely women performing male roles, there are androgynous females who transform into veritably ‘male’ females on and off the stage. They overcome and transcend the gender boundaries of Japanese society, something common women are not able to do.
1 This railway still exists today, and is called the Hankyû Railway.
2 The Meiji government decided to modernize Japan in the 1870s and the following decades following the slogan wakon yôsai (Japanese spirit, Western knowledge).
3 During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, many Asian independent movements hoped for a liberation movement led by Japan, but in the aftermath of the war, Japan had shown its own expansionist ambitions.
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Frank Jacob received his Masters degree in History and Japanese Studies from Würzburg University (Germany) in 2010, and his Ph.D from Erlangen-University in 2012. He is the editor of Comparative Studies from a Global Perspective, and works as lecturer at Düsseldorf University and Würzburg University. His research interests are Japanese Studies, Japanese history, Media Studies, and Comparative History. He may be contacted at email@example.com.