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The Financial Times
Arts & Weekend / Art, music & theatre
A woman’s man
By David Pilling
Published: January 6 2006 15:32 | Last updated: January 6 2006 15:32
Outside an ornate, salmon-pink building in Tokyo, hundreds of women - many middle-aged and wearing short, formless jackets - are in a state of suppressed excitement. Organised into neat rows, some squatting, some standing, they are straining to monitor the comings and goings at what turns out to be a theatre entrance.
After a few minutes, a skinny young woman appears. Her angular, somewhat boyish face is accentuated by short-cropped hair. She wears jeans and a casual, flowery blouse. A hush falls on the crowd as she saunters along the line of admirers, bowing and accepting the envelopes and small gifts held out to her. When she reaches the end, she stands and waves, before disappearing into a small side door. The moment she is gone, there is a quiet reshuffling of the women outside, as a new group takes its place in the front row.
The huddle of admirers are all adoring fans of the young female stars of Takarazuka, a Japanese all-female theatre that is part romantic musical revue and part male impersonation. Takarazuka performances are flamboyant in the extreme, with gorgeous costumes, dazzling lighting effects, dancing and singing.
Most performances are divided into two. The first half is a play, often cribbed from European or American fiction and turned into a Japanese-language love story full of rousing numbers, fluttering hearts and heaving bodices. The second half is a revue, sometimes featuring tap-dancing, coats and tails and Broadway musical hits, usually sung in Japanese. Shows end with an obligatory “staircase scene”, in which the stars shimmy down an illuminated staircase in a musical climax.
Takarazuka is the mirror image of kabuki, a Japanese dramatic form that dates from the early 17th century. In kabuki, all the actors are men. Some of them, known as onnagata, imitate women in a highly stylised fashion.
With Takarazuka, the main attraction is the otokoyaku, women who play the romantic male leads. These actresses are supported - emotionally and financially - by female fans who ply them with encouragement and presents. Some of the big stars even hand over their washing to fans after a performance to have it returned, neatly pressed, the following day. A few men also attend Takarazuka performances.
Fans are reluctant to explain the attraction of young women acting as star-crossed lovers, affecting the deep voice and stiff posture of a man, or accentuating the softness and delicacy of a woman. But Tomoko Umemoto, the wife of a Japanese banker, is less bashful. Speaking of the otokoyaku, she says: “They shine in their role as ideal, beautiful men.” Women play men as women would like them to be, she says: gentle, romantic and good-looking.
It is a common conceit in Japan, whose art cherishes artifice. Japanese gardens feature raked stones or miniature trees twisted and formed by human hand. Kabuki enthusiasts swear that the onnagata who specialise in female roles are more beautiful than real women.
Takarazuka stars, some of whom go on to become television celebrities, are made rather than born. They are fashioned in a school in Takarazuka, a Japanese town that gave its name to the female revue. The school is central to their tradition. Unlike kabuki actors, who come exclusively from kabuki families stretching back generations, Takarazuka is meritocratic. Competition to attend the prestigious school is legendary: of about 1,000 girls who apply each year, just 50 are accepted. Once selected, they are trained in classical ballet, tea ceremony, jazz dance, voice and a clutch of other skills that make up a modern Takarazuka star.
Referring to this famously gruelling selection and training process, Umemoto says: “When we see them on stage, we feel full of life. When I see a woman trying so hard, I get power from that. Even if I am sad, or things are bitter in my own life, I think: ‘I must struggle on.’”
Umemoto has spent six years supporting one star, Hikaru Asami, a well-known otokoyaku. “They start their careers at 15 and work up the ranks,” she says, referring to the rise from high-kicking chorus-line girl to lead actress. “We are like their mothers and they are like our daughters or friends. We watch as they grow, and we say: ‘Fight on. Fight on.’”
To support her idol, Umemoto attends several performances of the same monthly show and claps wildly at Asami’s every entrance and exit. She sends her encouraging letters, and helps organise her fans outside the theatre.
The Takarazuka Revue Company was founded 90 years ago. It was the brainchild of Ichizo Kobayashi, who owned what became the Hankyu railway company, which still connects the huge commercial city of Osaka with the twee spa town of Takarazuka. The revue was designed to draw in the crowds - and get people using the railway. Next he established the Takarazuka Music School, part acting academy and part finishing school, at which young ladies - mostly from well-to-do families - were polished.
Takarazuka town is a study in kitsch. Many of the buildings are Italian in style, with red-tiled roofs and wrought-iron railings. Pink is in abundance. Statues of Takarazuka stars adorn the flowered walkway that leads to the theatre, designed like a medieval castle with more than a nod to Disneyland.
The school is less ornate. Masako Imanishi, a former Takarazuka star and now deputy principal of the school, showed me around the empty building during the summer holidays. Entrance to outsiders, especially men, is forbidden during term time. Now, as in Kobayashi’s day, the institution’s motto is “Purity. Integrity. Beauty”. Imanishi, who has large-framed glasses, outsized pearl earrings and dyed-purplish curly hair, explains: “Refinement is everything. The school is about refining your heart and having a pure mind.”
Kobayashi, like a latter-day Ms World impresario, insisted that all his young ladies were virgins. “Even now, you can’t be married,” says Imanishi. “In my day, you couldn’t even have a boyfriend.” As a student, she stopped walking in public with her father or brother lest the relationship be misconstrued.
In spite of these strictures, girls throughout Japan still dream of becoming a Takarazuka princess or, better yet, a prince. One such starry-eyed young woman was Mitsuki Tenju, who was brought up in Akita in the rural north of Japan. When she was a child, her parents took her to a performance of Takarazuka in Tokyo. “I remember looking up at the stage, and everything was so over-the-top and luxurious and gorgeous,” she recalls.
Tenju, now on the chorus line of Star troupe, one of six Takarazuka companies, has short brown hair, strong boyish features and an open smile that will set hearts aflutter. She got into the school on her second attempt, but that turned out to be the easy part. Students - never called actresses, even after they graduate - start each day at 6.50am by bowing to a bust of Kobayashi. The school is famed for its rigorous discipline and obsession with cleanliness. Armed with cotton buds and masking tape, would-be stars are told to get down on their hands and knees and remove the tiniest flecks of dust from the already twinkling corridors. Imanishi says cleaning, along with classical ballet, is core to the school ethos. “They have to make everything sparkle so they can start each day with a new heart. That’s what Kobayashi-san taught us,” she adds, raising her eyes momentarily towards the heavens.
Scrubbing is followed by dance and music training, acting techniques, acting theory and the history of music. Those fortunate enough - and tall enough - to be designated otokoyaku spend hours practising male poses, struts and timbre.
The following day I joined a long line of women as they wafted towards the theatre for a performance. The production, A Kiss to The Flames, is based on Verdi’s opera Il trovatore. The play is set in 15th-century Spain, providing ample excuse for actresses to don fine capes and leather boots, and to swish along the stage in layers of velvet and silk.
After a few opening songs rendered by a full orchestra, Manrico, the swashbuckling “male” lead, appears. He is played by Yoka Wao, Cosmos troupe’s top otokoyaku. When she speaks her lines and breaks into song, she puts on a deep, gruff voice. Many of her mannerisms, including a purposeful stride, hands behind the back, are discernibly male. Yet she wears bright red lipstick, all the redder for her powder white make-up. When Wao lifts the leading lady off the ground, she does her best to disguise the considerable effort involved. When they kiss, the audience cannot quite see when - or even if - the actresses’ lips collide.
The curtain (sponsored by Shiseido, Japan’s top cosmetics company) goes down on the first half. The second act is a revue inspired by the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The performance ends, as do all Takarazuka shows, with an elaborate scene in which the stars tap down a giant glass stairway in ever-more outrageous costumes. The top actresses appear in huge Rio-style feather headdresses, which become progressively larger, culminating in what looks like an ostrich perched on the head of the lead otokoyaku.
In a society where women are under-represented in business and politics, it is tempting to see the attraction of Takarazuka as a yearning to be endowed with a man’s social standing. Tenju, who recently graduated, says: “It is true that powerful women are not popular with Japanese men. Looking back at what I felt as a child, I was really longing to lead a powerful and energetic life.”
Imanishi says a bigger attraction is pure escapism, though even this does not imply that the audience’s lives are dull or difficult. “Takarazuka provides dreams and romanticism and energy and strength,” she says. “There are some fans who pine for the stars. Even though they are the same sex, it is not impossible to fall in love. That’s the magic of Takarazuka.”
Kenko Kawasaki, an author and critic, says that feminist interpretations of Takarazuka are probably misplaced. Japanese housewives are not, by and large, unhappy, she says, even if some rarely socialise with their hard-working husbands. Many housewives, Kawasaki says, adhere to the Japanese saying: “A good husband is healthy and never at home.” That sounds like the cue for a song.
David Pilling is the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief.