Get on the gender-bending entertainment train with Takarazuka Kagekidan, Japan’s mesmerizing all-female revue.
What would you do if you were the enterprising owner of a railway company looking to draw tourists to Takarazuka city, a struggling hot springs town at the untrafficked end of your Osaka-bound train line? If you’re Hankyu Railway tycoon Ichizo Kobayashi, you’d gather a troupe of young performers to attract new tourists. Kobayashi opened the Takarazuka Revue in 1914 in Paradise, a Western-style building that had a very brief life as an indoor pool. But co-ed swimming was prohibited back then, and with competition from local hot springs, the pool business dried up. So Kobayashi turned Paradise into a live musical theatre venue: audiences sat on the covered-over empty pool, facing a set of adjacent changing rooms that were converted into a stage. The very first revue featured family-friendly shows put on by young performers from 12 to 17 years old, who all embodied the troupe motto of “modesty, fairness and grace.”
Japan has a long theatrical history of singing, dancing and acting performances, but, from its very first show, Takarazuka has gone against one key element that defined most of that history: all the performers are female. It was long believed that only a man could truly perform onnagata, the role of a woman, on stage. But with its grand, all-female performances and sweeping, romantic storylines, Takarazuka has shown that, yes, women can play female roles, called musumeyaku—and perhaps only a woman can perfectly play male roles, or otokoyaku, especially the role of the chivalrous male hero. Takarazuka has seen explosive domestic success, with 2.5 million people attending the performances each year (higher than annual attendance rates for Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku), and tickets tend to sell out in minutes. The intensely devoted fanbase is 90% female. What is it about the Takarazuka that so appeals to women? It may be the impressive variety of shows: performances are humorous or dramatic, contemporary or historical, adapted from both Japanese and international sources. The 2019 schedule includes Mugen Musou, a Japanese story built around the famous samurai Musashi Miyamoto, and the movie-inspired Oceans 11. It may also be that the otokoyaku performances push back against strict gender binaries, though fans will devote themselves to performers in all roles, following them from their debuts to career peaks.
All that stardom doesn’t come easily. Thousands of hopefuls between the ages of 15 and 18 apply each year in order to become one of the roughly 40 successful young women who will train in ballet, singing and poise at the Takarazuka Music School. The chosen few will sign a seven-year contract with the company and be placed in one of five different troupes, each with a distinct performance specialty: Flower, Moon, Snow, Star and Cosmos. “Superior Members,” who form an exceptional sixth group, can appear in any production. Here is where dreams are made—and, for many, lost.
Take a gander at Takarazuka
Interested in enjoying Takarazuka? You’re in luck. Over the last few years, the Revue has attempted to expand its audience with performances abroad, including their North American debut in Chicago in 2016. But wherever you are, consider treating yourself to an impressive display of female theatrical skill.
DO enjoy the fandom.
Die-hard fans line up overnight just to glimpse their idols, so enjoy the joy of those at the show.
DO NOT be afraid to be a fanboy.
Men are also welcome to be part of the audience, so don’t hesitate to attend.
DO try to take part.
Visitors can try out the stage costumes and makeup at the theatre’s very own hair salon.
Illustration by Chieko Watanabe