Girls just wanna have fun
Glittering costumes are part of the appeal at an all-female revue in Japan
TAKARAZUKA was once a sleepy spa town nestled by the Muko River in the southern ranges of Japan’s Kansai region.
These days it’s an upscale bedroom suburb for the metropolitan sprawl of Osaka and Kobe. Tourists still come for a soothing soak in the local waters but most visitors are more intent on escaping into fantasy at the Takarazuka Grand Theatre.
This performing arts complex is home base for the all-female Takarazuka Revue, established in 1913 by the Hankyu railway corporation to attract passengers to the town with jolly Japaneselanguage versions of Western musical entertainments.
To say it’s been a success understatement.
Somehow I’ve muddled my commute from Kyoto and have to scamper like the White Rabbit through arcades and malls from Takarazuka’s two train stations to the theatre. In the cavernous cream and red foyer, an automated grand piano is dashing off Rachmaninoff selections. By the time I reach the dress circle, anticipation is building. The revue’s Snow Troupe is about to perform The Masked Man, its song-and-dance take on on Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask
I’m the only Westerner and one of a handful of males among at least 2000 women. This is not a hip, drag-show crowd, rather the kinds of mothers and grown-up daughters I regularly pass in the street without a second glance. They’re part of more than two million fans drawn to the revue’s cross-dressing shows every year, here and at the company’s equally roomy venue in central Tokyo.
Shopping bags are tucked neatly under seats and usherettes are keeping an eagle eye out for rogue cameras. The house lights dim and about 20 slim, smooth-
is an faced performers take the stage, variously dressed in fanciful 17th-century French costumes. Takarazuka’s dreamy pageants don’t run to fake beards, fat suits or moustaches to designate gender. Usually you can spot the ‘‘male’’ characters by their side-parted hair and KD Lang-style cowlicks, but things are more jumbled at this court of the Sun King, where everyone has flowing locks and most have hats with plumes.
Hidden from view, a pop orchestra cranks out an overture, a medley of neo-western melodies. It’s like Japonisme in reverse, though one tune could be something ABBA toyed with for an Asian market, another a missing samurai sequence from Les Miserables, all of it loosely within the Broadway canon.
Cultural appropriation is as much the real Japan as lacquered bowls and wooden sandals.
We applaud as Kei Otozuki rises up through a trapdoor. A convincing contralto with an oval face, Otozuki is the leading otokoyaku (male role performer) and top star of the troupe. Dashing in high-waisted breeches, frock coat and boots with heels that give a height advantage, Otozuki is playing Louis XIV and his identical twin brother, Philippe.
Otokoyaku pull in the crowds, presenting a sensitive, elegant vision of masculinity that’s a far cry from the way the partners of most of the audience behave at home. Or at least that’s the popular theory. Otokoyaku speak in the brusque male form of the honorific Japanese language and the women around me titter knowingly during the drunken boasting of a tavern scene.
An otokoyaku needs a female counterpart, a musumeyaku, and Otozuki has pretty soprano Mimi Maihane, playing Louise de la Valliere. It’s the illusion of romantic chemistry, the finesse with which these idealised couples court and spark that makes the revue so cute.
Louise catches the eye of the womanising Louis, who slaps her hapless fiance, Raoul, in prison and then pretends he will save him if Louise joins the ladies in waiting. Well, we all know what that means. Something between a swoon and a gasp ripples through the audience as Louis bears down to ravish Louise behind the surreal red lips of a Bocca couch that has somehow travelled back in time from 1970s Italy.
Through dancing and swordplay, the narrative charges on; and even though Louis is a rotter and Raoul will never make it out of the dungeon, there’s no reason why act one can’t end with a cheery eyes- and- teeth chorus line of synchronised, swaying steps.
The dancing is well-organised but lacks the snap and sweat of Broadway hoofers. It’s floaty and decorous, in keeping with Takarazuka’s motto of modesty, fairness and grace. But the amusements at court have zip. A trilling soprano flies through the air with a mirror ball between her legs as jesters dressed as pineapples and flowerpots dart about.
Louis is apparently swapped for Philippe during the confusion, but because Otozuki can only be in one place at a time, it’s difficult to be sure until Louise turns up determined to kill Louis, who draws her aside and confides he’s actually the much nicer Philippe.
Suddenly the pair start to bond in a childlike shadow-play sequence, their hands creating silhouettes of rabbits and dogs, tortoises and birds. It gives rise to a duet charged with dewy-eyed attraction. Tough luck, Raoul.
The drama continues with musketeer subplots, a rear-projected horseback chase, even a bewildering underwater segment. The brothers are swapped back and forth until I’m completely confused. So are the palace guards. By the final scene, they seem to just go along with whoever Otozuki thinks she’s playing, which turns out to be Philippe. It’s cause for a full-cast reprise of the love duet and a triumphant happy ending. Intermission.
The show charms like a liveaction manga ( comic), a point reinforced at the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum just a few blocks from the theatre. A local son whose mother took him to the revue when he was a child, Tezuka is often called the god of comics for his pioneering and popular work during the 1950s, with characters such as Astro Boy and his Princess Knight series, featuring a medieval princess who has to pretend to be male to inherit the throne.
Among the museum’s three colourful floors of exhibits, interactive displays, statues and merchandise are some of Tezuka’s early sketches of the revue. Those androgynous impressions fed into his drawing style which, in turn, endures as an influence in contemporary manga.
Back at the theatre, the second half is in full, garish flight. Royal Straight Flush!! bills itself as an allegory for all life’s emotions and is a singing cavalcade of glittering outfits, Ziegfeld-inspired routines and star turns propelled by a pastiche of radio hits. Viva Las Vegas is a recurring theme.
There are rockettes and bunnies, spangles and washes of colour. Otozuki lets rip with a version of It’s Raining Men. I don’t try to unravel the identity politics of a woman pretending to be a man belting out an anthem written to rouse gay men, here inspiring a ladylike clap-along. It’s lots of fun and when the entire troupe kicks out for the finale there are at least 70 people onstage and there can’t be a spare feather left in the wardrobe department. kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/ tezukaosamu.net/en/museum/
Mimi Maihane, left, and Kei Otozuki, the show’s
otokoyaku (male role performer) and star