Takarazuka – The Japanese All-Female Theatre Troupe
A unique form of Japanese entertainment!
An all-female cast, extravagant costumes and splendid song and dance numbers are the essence of the Takarazuka Revue (“Mound of Treasure”). Ever since their first performance in 1914 in the city of Takarazuka, this troupe has drawn legions of fans from across the world, had a profound influence on the history of anime and manga and become a staple part of Japanese society.
The founder of this all-female revue was, surprisingly, a man. Kobayashi Ichizo was the president of Hankyu Railways in Takarazuka, which was already a popular tourist destination for its hot springs and connection to Osaka. Influenced by the increased fascination with Western shows in Japan and belief that traditional Kabuki theatre, which forbid female actors, was old and elitist, the first Takarazuka Revue performance of ‘Donburako’ took place in 1914. Its popularity soared and within twenty years it had two theatres in Takarazuka and Tokyo.
The main attraction of the Takarazuka for female fans is how the female cast portrayal the ideal man. Typically, there is one ‘top star’ playing the leading male role in each performance and it takes at least ten years for the actress to master the male role. Everything from pose to posture to voice must be perfected until it is natural to ‘act’ like the ideal, dream-like man. Similarly, the leading female role must act like the ideal, graceful woman who is passionately in love with the handsome man. It certainly is hierarchical but, without these perfect leading roles, no Takarazuka performance can achieve its goal in dragging its audience into another world in which beautiful men and beautiful women live in harmony.
It is unsurprising that all cast members must be a graduate of the Takarazuka Music School and completed its competitive and rigorous two year programme. Thousands audition every year and no more than fifty are accepted into the school, an event which is heavily covered in the news. There are five different troupes; Flower, Moon, Snow, Star and Cosmos, which hold just 400 performers. This hierarchical nature is further shown by the status of ‘upperclassmen’ and ‘lowerclassmen’, the former having been cast members for at least seven years and have a greater negotiating role in performances. Interestingly, the women must be unmarried. Traditionally, leaving the troupe was the equivalent of graduating from finishing school and entering the world of marriage.
A ‘typical’ Takarazuka performance, if there really is such a thing, is characterised by its emphasis on other-worldliness, synchronised dances and musical numbers and flamboyant costumes. Similar to Broadway and West End performances, there is always a grand finale in which the cast come together for the final closing musical number. However, the Takarazuka finales are unlike anything seen in the western world. It is traditional for the stars to wear a giant set of feathers to symbolise their importance to the performance. The larger the peacock—like display, the larger the character’s personality.
Describing the Takarazuka Revue as ‘a Japanese Broadway group’ does not do it justice at all. The majority of its performances are adaptions of Japanese works, such as the traditional The Tale of Genji, but even the popular manga The Rose of Versailles and video game series Phoenix Wright have been received the Takarazuka treatment. However, classic western films and novels such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Great Gatsby have not escaped its attention, which is unsurprising considering the influence western popular culture had on the founding of the Takarazuka Revue.
If you are lucky enough to visit Tokyo, the Takarazuka Theatre in the Ginza district should definitely be on your ‘to-do’ list. You can buy tickets for performances, which range from approximately £20 to £90 depending on the view, from the theatre itself or with the help of your hotel concierge if you are not so sure. The theatre itself truly is grand and lavish, complete with a red carpet, chandelier and spiral staircase. The ground floor is home to the official Takarazuka Revue gift shop and the second floor to a café which sells limited edition food related to the performance. As an extra treat, there is a nearby studio in which you are professionally dressed up and photographed a Takarazuka cast member! Although it is not particularly cheap, this is perhaps the must-have souvenir for the true Takarazuka fan.
As it nears its 100th birthday, the Takarazuka Revue remains as popular as ever with all age groups of Japan. It is hierarchical yet romantic and masculine yet feminine, and in some ways quite paradoxical. If you are a fan of the London West End, the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre or Takarazuka Grand Theatre are not to be missed when you visit Japan.
Sophie Carroll is a huge fan of all aspects of Japanese history and culture, and is particularly interested in the Sengoku era and samurai. She has visited Japan twice and is teaching herself katakana. She studied History at the University of Warwick and writes a weekly blog about Japan at www.sophiesjapanblog.wordpress.com
Special thanks to James Fielding