Girls just wanna have fun

Glit­ter­ing cos­tumes are part of the ap­peal at an all-fe­male re­vue in Ja­pan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ALIS­TAIR JONES

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/

TAKARAZUKA RE­VUE COM­PANY

Mimi Mai­hane, left, and Kei Otozuki, the show’s

otokoy­aku (male role per­former) and star

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