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
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
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
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
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.