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Gender benders in Takarazuka and kabuki

The hero was tall, charming, confident and very handsome. He was – as all heroes should be – suitably tortured by destiny, impossible choices and unattainable passion. He was a skilled swordfighter and a tender lover.

The hero was also a woman. Obviously a woman. I know I'm supposed to think it's a man and probably also supposed to fall in love with him, but no, throughout the all-female Takarazuka Revue performance I knew I was looking at women.

Yuzuki Reon as Romeo and Yumesaki Nene as Juliet

I've seen only one show, and it was a few years ago, but since Takarazuka is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, I thought I'd write about them.

Takarazuka (宝塚歌劇団 Takarazuka Kagekidan) was founded in 1913 by Kobayashi Ichizō, president of Hankyū Railways Corporation, in order to persuade more people to use the railway line to Takarazuka, a city known for its hot springs. He focused on Broadway shows rather than traditional Japanese entertainment such as Noh and kabuki, and he wanted an all-female cast as opposed to all-male kabuki performances. He probably never suspected it would turn into such a huge success.

Young girls who want to join Takarazuka must attend a highly competitive audition at the age of sixteen to eighteen to get into the Takarazuka Ongaku Gakkō (Music School), one of the best performing arts academies in Japan. Over a thousand girls audition each year, but only fifty make it. Even after passing, it's not an easy road – girls take classes in singing, acting, various dancing styles, music history, theatre theory, etiquette and more from nine to five each day, as well as do the daily cleaning of the dorms and classrooms. After a year at the school, each student becomes either an otokoyaku (player of men's roles) or musumeyaku (player of women's roles). The decision is based on height, physique, voice, etc. The students now divide into two separate classes: the otokoyaku study how to talk, act and move like men, while the musumeyaku train to be ultra-feminine.

I read this in a review in a Tokyo magazine:
The all-female Takarazuka Revue Company is such a fanatically supported institution that you know it must touch something deep in the Japanese psyche, or at least the female Japanese psyche. Some ninety percent of fans are female and most are under twenty-five; and the stars they adulate the most are the otokoyaku, the actresses who play the male parts. Japan is a male-dominated society, and the otokoyaku represent a vicarious way for young women to live out fantasies of strength and power … but what they really come for is romance, the pure, old-fashioned, fairy-tale variety devoid of crudity or passion, much as Disney sugar-coats its love stories.
Yuzuki Reon (柚希 礼音), currently a leading otokoyaku, had this to say in a recent Japan Times interview:
We have long researched men, and as a result of the long, thoughtful and in-depth analysis of what makes a "man", we can portray that perfect man. The fact that we are females ourselves is another advantage. We, as women, know what women want, and just how they wish to be treated by men (so we also bring that into the play). Japanese guys are usually shy about following the "ladies first" rules of etiquette, and I think as a result, female audiences like to watch us, the otokoyaku, acting in this way without giving it a second thought.
If you want to see/hear her, here we go:



If you want to see a woman playing a woman playing a man and a man who's in love with the man woman … look, I'm not a manga expert … I can never keep these characters apart. Suffice it to say this is Oscar and André from The Rose of Versailles:



During that one performance that I attended, I wasn't perturbed by women playing men at all. You know they're women: they may have deep voices but they still run like women (blame our blasted lower centre of gravity as well as our child-bearing hips) and when they have to fight, they just don't have enough, well, umm, balls. I was, however, completely unnerved by the all-female audience. Why no men? If we can all watch men as women in kabuki, why can't we all watch women as men in Takarazuka performances? Why do women love these shows so much, and men apparently hate it more than ballet? Still pondering that, but maybe it's like rugby (it's a man thing) and book clubs (it's a woman thing).

I've never been comfortable in predominantly female surroundings, which may explain why I've always worked in male-dominated environments. I'm sorry, sisters, I'm just not a girly girl: I get claustrophobic when I'm surrounded by oestrogen. 

All I know is that one Takarazuka show was enough. I guess I prefer imperfect men.

Yuzuki Reon in Ace Attorney

If you want to see more performers, try this link or this link. You can click on any of the pictures to see close-ups of the various actresses. The otokoyaku all have strong features; whereas the musumeyaku are more stereotypically "cute".

The heroine was a man

The dancer enters the stage dressed in a breathtaking kimono that's embroidered in jewel-like colours and an intricate pattern of peonies. Her dance is stately, with limited movement, yet her fluttering hands become falling blossoms and her fan sketches a waterfall as she waves it in the air.

This is Yayoi, a maidservant who's performing the lion dance (春興鏡獅子 shunkyō kagami jishi) for the shōgun in his palace. As she dances, she falls under the spell of the lion spirit and gradually transforms into the beast. The dainty maiden becomes a fierce lion that flies into a rage when two butterflies tease him.

Poster advertising the lion dance. The lead role in this
particular production was danced by Onoe Kikunosuke 
(尾上菊之助). 

Both dainty maiden and angry beast are traditionally performed by a male actor who specializes in female roles in kabuki plays, called an onnagata (). Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theatre known for its stylization, elaborate make-up and fanciful costumes. The word kabuki (歌舞伎) is written in three kanji that mean sing (), dance () and skill (), and that's exactly what it is: singing, dancing and acting. It's very artificial – there's no attempt whatsoever to be "natural" – yet it provides moments of intense emotion.

When kabuki originated in the early 1600s, women's roles were played by actresses. Performances were ribald and performers were available as prostitutes, and eventually women were banned from appearing in kabuki. Young male actors known as wakashū took over, but their performances were equally suggestive and they, too, performed off stage for male customers. Eventually the powers that be banned wakashū as well, and from 1653 only mature men could perform kabuki.

This custom – adult men in women's roles – continues to this day, and these actors are known as onnagata.

I saw the lion dance described above in the old Kabuki-za in Ginza, performed by Ichikawa Somegoro (市川染五郎). It was the finale of a full five-hour kabuki performance, and it was a mesmerizing encounter. The photos below show the cover of a book he's written about kabuki, which you can buy here, and the actor in real life. イケメンでしょう! (Ikemen deshō, i.e. he's handsome, isn't he?) Nothing beats real stubble!


If the very thought of five hours of kabuki gives you a nervous breakdown, oh, I had that same concern when I went to my first performance. I was convinced I'd go stir-crazy with boredom, but I was hooked throughout: the music, the costumes, the drama, the splendour, the grandness, the nobility. It's so completely theatrical, larger than life, yet it also portrays basic human emotions that transcend language barriers. I must add, though, that Kabuki-za graciously provides earphones that give you a running English commentary as the play progresses. That turns a visual spectacle into a truly enjoyable experience.

Are onnagata convincing? Hmm. I find it easier to accept a man as a woman than vice versa. Not sure why, but perhaps it's simply because I prefer both men and women to have oomph.

Kabuki actors, including onnagata, also have their fans, but of both genders and all sexual variations. It just feels more … it's always dangerous to use the word "normal" or "natural" when talking about attraction … so let's just say that kabuki fans' admiration feels more conventional to me than the obsession of Takarazuka devotees.

If you want to see the lion dance, I recommend the videos below. They feature Bandō Tamasaburō V (坂東 玉三郎), the most popular and celebrated onnagata currently on stage. The photos below show Bandō in real life, and in a female role on a poster.


You can watch the full dance on YouTube (taking into account that kabuki isn't everybody's cup of green tean), but I've selected two clips: a part of Yayoi's dance and the lion's dance.



PS: The old Kabuki-za was razed in 2010 to make way for a new theatre, which reopened this month. Read more about it here.

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