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Sunday, 19 May 2013





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Japan’s all-female Takarazuka Revue turns 100

It’s more modern than traditional but the Takarazuka Revue Company is a unique and enduring part of Japanese culture. Since the early 20th century, this all-women musical troupe has performed both male and female roles in lavish adaptions of mostly Western genres such as Hollywood movies, American literature and Shakespeare. Recent productions include the Takarazuka version of the 2001 movie Oceans 11 and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Classical Japanese literature and even Manga (Japanese comics) are also part of the Revue’s repertoire with productions of Murasaki Shikibu’s 10th century classic The Tale of Genji and the Manga Black Jack by Tezuka Osamu. The Revue’s dramatisations are heavy on romance, allowing the otoko-yaku (male role) and musume-yaku (daughter or female role) stars to shine on stage as they sing, dance and act out epic love stories.

The Takarazuka Grand Theatre and its training facility, the Takarazuka Music School, are based in Takarazuka city in Hyogo Prefecture, Western Japan. There is also a theatre in central Tokyo. The Revue has five troupes - Hana (flower), Tsuki (moon), Hoshi (star), Yuki (snow) and Sora (cosmos) - with approximately 400 members in total.

The troupes rotate between the theatres in western and eastern Japan. Both theatres reportedly attracted combined audiences of 1.88 million in 2011, earning the company around 25 billion Japanese yen (30 billion Sri Lankan rupees).


The Revue’s audience is also unique - estimated to be 90 percent female and including highly organised fan clubs for the top stars of the various troupes. Getting tickets for shows can be difficult because fan clubs buy up blocks of tickets well in advance to make sure they see their favourite stars. The Revue’s popularity with female audiences, and what it says about gender relations in Japanese society, has been the subject of academic attention.

The general consensus is that women come to see the Revue to escape the frustrations of their daily lives, and that they enjoy seeing the idealised performances of the otoko-yaku (male roles). It’s also been observed that Takarazuka fandom now passes from generation to generation within families - mothers, daughters and grand-daughters attend shows together.

This year, the Revue marks the 100th anniversary of its founding. It started in 1913, when railroad baron Kobayashi Ichizo decided that an all-female musical theatre group would be an ideal attraction to increase the number of passengers alighting at the Takarazuka terminus of his Hankyu line from Osaka. Kobayashi was tapping into the trends of the Taisho era (1912-1927), when Japan enthusiastically embraced Western modernity. A trip to Paris had inspired him to create “modern girls” in Japan and he imported the style of the Folies Bergere, a French Cabaret.

The Revue is still owned by Hankyu Railway Corporation and Kobayashi’s values are still part of its ethos. This is evident in the Revue’s motto; kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku, (modesty, fairness and grace), which according to the Revue’s website is “fervently alive in the hearts of the performers and staff” and aims to produce “a pure, elegant and well-educated personality”.


Incredibly high standards of performance and deportment are expected of the young women who enter the Takarazuka Music School. It has a reputation for a very strict training regimen. According to former Takarazuka actress, Shiori Gibson, her two years at the Music School, which she entered at 16 years old, “were as hard as training for the army”.

The three day audition process was particularly arduous. She says there were 1,300 girls competing for 40 places. The pressure to make the final selection was intense, but “once you get into the school you don’t want to give up. You become more confident.”

Gibson auditioned for the school during Takarazuka’s “boom time” in the late 1970s. The Revue’s production of the Rose of Versailles, based on a popular Manga and Anime (animation) series about the French Revolution, had been a huge success since it premiered in 1974 and increased the popularity of the company. BeruBara, as it is affectionately known locally, is still the Revue’s biggest hit and fans are flocking to performances during this centenary year.

Gibson said the Revue is still so popular because it is an escape into a “beautiful and glittering” world, where the men an “unreal”. Her motivation to join the Takarazuka Revue was twofold - she says she wanted to perform on stage, but she knew that she also wanted to do something special - there’s certainly no other school of performing arts in Japan that is comparable. During her two years at the school, where it was compulsory to live in the dormitory and there were very few days off, she studied a wide variety of music and dance styles including opera, ballet, and traditional Japanese dance.


Of equal importance, was the early morning cleaning of the classroom - including dusting with paintbrushes and using sticky tape to eliminate any dirt from the floor.

A huge amount of time was also spent on marching. The local Self Defence Force unit were instructors at the school, teaching the students to move in tandem as preparation for the Revue’s famous line dance.

After Gibson made her debut as a musume-yaku (female role) in the Hana troupe, she performed in up to eight productions a year for six years. She took the stage name Mikage Shiori; Mikage means “beautiful shadow” in Japanese. Gibson says she knew she couldn’t be a top star because she wasn’t tall enough. “So many people were competing to be a top star, but I was quite happy being stardust”, she says. Despite her modest attestation, Gibson had her own fan club and has many stories of fans delivering fresh food and flowers to the stage door, and sending her letters and gifts.

As the Revue celebrates its 100 years, Gibson says that she feels proud to have been a part of it. “Takarazuka is a world of dreams, but it also a world in which you can be fearless”, she says. It is this sentiment that is currently propelling the Revue overseas in an attempt to gain new audiences. In April, the Revue performed in Taiwan and there are plans for more shows in Asia in the future.


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