One of the first stereotypes to be shattered when I began watching Japanese television dramas all those years ago was that of the television drama heroine. Sure, the long-suffering “Cinderella” heroine remains popular but she’s not the only heroine to be found. Tall, broad shouldered, and very charismatic, there is a class of actress with no equivalent anywhere else in the world. They play policewomen, doctors, detectives, and sometimes even just regular moms. But there’s something different even when they play traditional female roles. Their bodies take up physical space as if they were entitled to it, like men. That Japan--Japan with its alleged submissive schoolgirl obsession--also had these magnificent, powerful women? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
As I gradually learned more about Japanese show business, it dawned on me that these tall, charismatic actresses didn’t just spring into existence like Athena from the head of Zeus. Amami Yuki, Maya Miki, and others, they were former stars of the all-female Takarazuka theater company (宝塚歌劇団). Takarazuka productions are known for glitz, glamor, romance, incredible costuming, and a final number always danced upon a giant staircase. And, most importantly, the company is known for its 男役 (otokoyaku, lit. male-role), the actresses in the company that play the male roles in their productions.
And for years, that was the extent of my Takarazuka knowledge. I’d always enjoy seeing the actresses pop up on dramas and game shows but because there was (and is) a paucity of real information on Takarazuka in English, the learning curve seemed too high. Without context or knowledge, the video clips I saw were just a jumble of sequins, feathers, and heavy eye make-up. Fabulous but confusing.
However, this spring when I realized my travel itinerary was going to take me directly through the town of Takarazuka, where the company is based, I bought a single ticket to the show that happened to be playing that day, a musical (which I assumed from the title) was going to be about the French Revolution, 1789. I wasn’t sure I’d understand anything that was going on but if you think Filmi Girl would pass up a chance to see glitz and glamor and handsome women in high heeled boots bounding across stage, clearly you haven’t been paying attention. I figured at the very least I’d have a funny story to tell about my adventures with sequins, feathers, and heavy eye make-up.
There’s always an element of chance in any love story and mine is no different. Maybe if it hadn’t been this show, with these actresses, I wouldn’t have fallen as hard for Takarazuka as I did. Maybe with another show, I would have walked out of the theater content simply to have had the experience, with my funny story to tell. Maybe with another show, my eyes wouldn’t have grown bright with tears as the actresses descended that staircase in the finale, my heart wouldn’t have fluttered as the air in the theater resonated with the force of the chorus’s voices, I wouldn’t have felt that ache of pleasure wash over my skin during the villain’s item song… but I did. When the show was over, instead of exiting the theater, I joined the crowd of ladies moving out of the main hall and directly into the gift shop to purchase glossy photos of our favorite stars. Because by the end of the finale, I had a favorite star. Over the course of the production, I’d become a Takarazuka fan.
In the months since I returned home, I’ve given myself a crash course in Takarazuka. I watched at least twenty or so productions on DVD. I’ve watched interviews with the actresses. And luckily my language skills had progressed to the point where I was even able to read an introductory book for Takarazuka fans in Japanese. Now, six months later, I’m finally able to make some sort of sense of what it is I saw. I know now what it meant to see the 101st class make their debut, how special it was to see the first Japanese production of the French musical 1789 , how lucky I was to see Seijou Kaito’s final role before she transferred to Senka, and to witness Miya Rurika’s breakout performance in the flesh. Some of my initial impressions have deepened but others have fallen away as I learned what it was I was watching. I will try to convey a little of both to you.
1789: －バスティーユの恋人たち－ (1789: Bastille no Koibito-tachi, 1789: the lovers of the Bastille), as the title implies, is a musical set during the French Revolution, loosely based on the 2012 French musical 1789: Les Amants de la Bastille. Young country boy Ronan Mazurier (Ryu Masaki) runs off to Paris after his father is unjustly executed by the Count of Peyrol (Seijou Kaito). There he meets revolutionaries blond-wigged Georges Danton (Saou Kurama), blond-wigged Camille Desmoulins (Nagina Ruumi), and brown-wigged Maximilien de Robespierre (Tamaki Ryou), who get him a job at an illegal, muckraking printing press.
Meanwhile, in Versailles, Marie Antoinette (Manaki Reika), in a massive grey-powered wig, is leading a seemingly carefree life, only concerned with concealing her affair with Axel von Fersen (Akatsuki Chisei) from the king’s younger brother, the Count of Artois (Miya Rurika, in a glossy brown wig) and his stooges in the secret police. The King (Mishiro Ren) is sweet but stupid and is unaware of any danger. All of this is revealed in a wild number set at a gambling party that begins with Marie Antoinette rising above the partygoers in a massive triple-layer cake dress right out of Eurovision or Kouhaku.
Marie Antoinette enlists the help of the governess Olympe (Saotome Wakaba) in getting to Paris to meet her lover. There’s a rousing street-song by Ronan and the famously party-friendly Danton, after which the two go to meet some “ladies of the night” only to discover that Ronan’s sister Solène is among them! Devastated, Ronan gets drunk and passes out on a bench… the very bench by which Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen are going to be meeting! Chekhov’s drunk makes his appearance after a lovely duet between the two lovers, interrupting the scene and sending Marie Antoinette fleeing. The Secret Police aren’t too far behind and Olympe, in order to protect her mistress and Axel von Fersen, throws Ronan under the bus, distracting the police by pretending he was trying to snatch her purse.
Ronan gets hauled off to the Bastille where he is brought face-to-face once again with the Count of Peyrol, who sings a wonderful jailhouse number to him, accompanied by much gratuitous whip cracking. Is this the end for Ronan?? Olympe feels guilty and stages a rescue, smuggling Ronan out of jail with the help of her father, a soldier posted to the Bastille. Maybe he’s still intoxicated or, at the least, punch drunk from one too many whippings but Ronan falls head over heels for Olympe during their escape. Olympe allows herself to be swept off her feet and into a stage kiss.
Back in Versailles, the King, has been listening to terrible advice from his backstabbing little brother and seems set to continue on the path to Revolution. The first act ends with a massive chorus number to that effect.
The second act opens with an incredible dance number led by Robespierre representing the events of the Tennis Court Oath, where dozens of chorus members, the common people of the Third Estate, perform a rhythmic, stomping dance, unaccompanied by any music.
Romantic drama continues as Marie Antoinette sends Olympe with a letter for Axel von Fersen but lying in wait is the Count of Artois, who sings a showstopping villain number with lyrics proclaiming that he’s a God. Luckily for Olympe, Ronan has been tipped off to the meeting as well and shows up to save her from the Count’s evil grasp. But the revolution doesn’t pause for love and events pick up with a song from Desmoulins, as he plucks a twig from a tree, singing, “武器を持って” (Pick up your weapons).
A bare-headed Marie Antoinette, in a surprisingly touching scene, is given a chance to escape to Austria with Axel von Fersen but she decides to stay beside the king. Her loyalty is rewarded with the guillotine.
Olympe spurns a final attempt at wooing from the Count of Artois and runs off to join the revolutionaries as the pace of the battle picks up and we’re treated to a series of different musical scenes of confrontations with the military that end with the storming of the Bastille and the death of Ronan, shot in the back while protecting Olympe and her father.
There’s a dramatic reading of the Declaration of the Rights of Man from the main revolutionaries, after which Ronan rises from under the stage, dressed now in white, and the entire cast sings a powerful number about how you can’t stop the march of history.
Once the curtains close, Miya Rurika appears without her wig, dressed in a powder blue waistcoast and breeches, and begins to sing. Her appearance signals the beginning of the Finale, a mini-revue following the main production, a highlight of any Takarazuka show. Miya crosses the stage across the 銀橋 (ginkyou/silver bridge), a walkway that stretches around the orchestra pit, and when she reaches the far side the curtain rises again and a chorus of line of the most junior members of the company appears.
The girls are decked out in feathered headdresses, stockings, and short frilly dresses in the colors of the French tricolor: Red, White, and Blue. They begin a high-energy cancan dance. Legs kicking high in unison, the girls radiate fresh-faced charm. As it turns out, this run of 1789 was the debut production, the 初舞台 (Hatsubutai) of the 101st Takarazuka class and the first “line dance”, as it’s called, is a rite of passage. The girls rehearse for endless hours, attempting to match the timing and height of their kicks to those of the girls on either side of them. The result is astonishing, the chorus line moving as one multilegged organism, the sound of their heels on the stage a thundering percussion.
Feathers bobbing, the girls file off, revealing the famous Takarazuka staircase. Ryu Masaki, the “male” lead, and the other actresses who played male roles perform fun, up-tempo number that leads into a dance duet between Ryu Masaki and Manaki Reika, the show’s “female” lead. And then it’s into the final stretch as soprano Touka Yurino, holding her shan-shan, ribbon-decorated bouquets specially made for each productions, descends the staircase and launches into the etoile, the song that leads into the final portion of the show, the parade. During the parade, the cast, um, parades down the giant staircase shan-shans in hand, pausing at the front of the stage to take a bow.
The top star, Ryu Masaki, in a white suit and the massive feathers that mark her status, is last to come down the stairs. She pauses to soak in the audience’s thunderous applause. Back straight. No hint of false modesty. Acting as a focal point for the audience’s emotional high. Experiencing this live was an incredible experience. I may not have known what was happening during the Finale but I understood what it meant to rise to my feet in a standing ovation for Ryu Masaki in her white suit and feathers. To see a confident, powerful 30-something woman--in the true meanings of the words, not the co-opted Sex and the City meaning--simply standing and accepting the audience’s affection as something she was due. My eyes watered with emotion. Just a little.
After experiencing something like this live, of course I wanted to learn more about Takarazuka. I started with English material but the problem with most of what little there is in English is that Takarazuka, because it features women playing both male and female roles, has become a magnet for Western gender studies and queer studies academics who insist on reading the theater company as subversive, whether “lesbian” or “genderqueer” or some other narrow prism. Not only is this unhelpful in understanding Takarazuka as an art form, it’s also, quite frankly, a severe misreading of the Takarazuka tradition itself. Obviously, as in any group of human beings anywhere, a certain small percentage of Takarasiennes, as they’re called, must be gay and the same goes for the audience. But it is ridiculous to assume that Takarazuka is nothing more than a Drag King act meant for the titilation of Japan’s homosexual female population simply because the women play men’s roles.
This one hundred year old theater company is an integral part of mainstream Japanese entertainment and is one of a handful of odd corners of Japanese entertainment that exist exclusively for women’s enjoyment. What makes Takarazuka really special is that it gives women and girls the chance to imagine themselves in the lead role, in the real world. Where most women-centric works focus on family and relationships and the woman’s own body, Takarazuka works bring women out of the household to take the swashbuckling lead role in The Scarlet Pimpernel, the melancholy spectre of Death in Elisabeth, even as slick Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11 (the 2011 version starring legendary Yuzuki Reon is a must see).
The fantasy in Takarazuka isn’t in becoming a man or in having sex with a woman. The fantasy is escaping daily life and societal pressures for a world where you can be a swashbuckling nobleman or be rescued by one. It’s not a mistake that so many Takarazuka productions are set in Europe and other far flung locales. The distance from Japan increases the fantasy, the unreality of the production for the audience. My feeling is that the Takarazuka hero is much like the Indian masala hero. The masala hero defeats evil corporate goons on screen only to send his fans back out into a world where they are completely at the mercy of evil corporate goons. The Takarazuka hero gives women a chance to blow off some steam. Sure, in the real world, we’re still second class citizens, constantly afraid of overstepping invisible boundaries of acceptable behavior, but standing on stage, wearing the massive feathers befitting a top star, basking in the glow of the audience’s affection. The memory of the show makes that harsh reality a little easier to bear.
Before officially entering the company, girls must first complete two years of training at the Takarazuka Music School. The entrance exam is extremely competitive and aspiring Takarasiennes (who must be between 15-18 years old) compete in singing, dance, and comportment. The students who finish their training are then guaranteed a position in the Takarazuka theater company. What they are not guaranteed is success. It can take ten or more years for a Takarasienne to work her way up to become a top star. Many women drop out before that for various reasons, most notably marriage, since Takaraiennes are forbidden from marriage or public dating. Top Stars are generally in their 30s and reign for 3 or so years. When a top star steps down she may retire from the company and enter mainstream show business--becoming the women like Amami Yuki who I noticed all those years ago--or they may quietly transfer to the Senka division, which houses the experienced, elder members of the company.
The Takarazuka theater company is actually composed of five different troupes-- Star Troupe, Moon Troupe, Cosmos Troupe, Flower Troupe, and Snow Troupe--each troupe has their own identity and their own top star. For example, Moon Troupe, the troupe I saw, is known for their ability in drama. The entering class of Takarasiennes are assigned to different troupes after the run of their hastubutai is completed. That doesn’t mean girls stay with their first troupe forever and Takarasiennes are often traded between troupes depending on need. If one troupe has a surplus of potential stars who are gaining in popularity, some of those potential stars may get sent to rival troupes in order to restore balance. Which, as it turns out, is exactly the situation the Moon Troupe had recently found itself in and how they ended up with the exact cast of 1789.
There isn’t just one type of top star and it takes more than an ability to sing and dance to pull it off. The top star isn’t the most talented member of the troupe, although talent helps, and she’s not the most charismatic, although that helps, too. The top star is a focal point, a totem. I watched quite a few different top stars in action over the last six months while I was trying to learn as much about Takarazuka as I could. To my eye, the best top stars are ones who don’t just shine but who raise the level of their co-stars in the process. The deservedly legendary Yuzuki Reon was like this. And, I was quite pleased to discover, for all her faults, so is Ryu Masaki.
I was initially rather unimpressed with Ryu in 1789 when I first got my DVD. She didn’t seem to have the charisma or talent of her co-stars. Her dancing seemed lethargic, full of big movements, and her dialogue delivery rather emotionless. It wasn’t until I’d seen many more shows, as well as rewatching 1789 on DVD many times over, that I began to understand why she was the top star and why the Moon Troupe wouldn’t be the same without her. For one thing, once I was more familiar with the vocal style of Takarazuka, I was able to recognize and appreciate Ryu’s steady pitch and clear enunciation. No matter the line, no matter how difficult the phrase, Ryu hits it, every time, like a boss. And her lines always come across so cleanly that even the people in the back of the highest balcony would be able to understand her perfectly. Emoting via facial expression is more important on film than on stage in a live performance. Ryu’s slow sweeping gestures and clear tones may not translate well to DVD but they accomplish exactly what they are supposed to.
Beyond her technical skills, Ryu’s charm as a top star lies in her own impish, sunny personality. This is captured most fully in the title of role of the fairy sprite Puck in 2014’s Puck. With pointy ears, a mop of golden curls, and a playful pair of overalls, Ryu is all boyish charm, taking pleasure in all the absurdities life has to throw at her. And it’s because Ryu Masaki’s raw talent isn’t overwhelming, and because her personality is so open, that it gives her co-stars, actresses like quick-witted adlib expert Seijou Kaito, room to showcase their own strengths, making the production, and the troupe, stronger as a whole.
So, what had happened was before Ryu Masaki became top star of Moon Troupe, she and another young Takarasienne otokoyaku named Asumi Rio, were battling it out for the number two slot. Asumi Rio, now the top star of the Flower Troupe, is a white hot supernova of talent but she’s not very giving on stage. She sucks up attention and energy rather than sharing it. When Ryu Masaki was promoted to top star, she didn’t have the stage presence to keep Asumi Rio under control. The balance was off and it was only a matter of time before the Troupe would topple. There is an incredible 2013 production of ベルサイユのばら －オスカルとアンドレ編－ (The Rose of Versailles: Oscar and Andre) in which Ryu and Asumi played an odd sort of double lead as brothers-in-arms Oscar and Andre, swapping roles every other show. During the Finale, Asumi appears in female costume and dances an unbelievably intense duet with Ryu. Following the double lead of Oscar and Andre, Asumi Rio was transferred to the Flower Troupe under the sturdier top star Ranju Tomu. But Asumi’s departure left a big gap in the Moon Troupe’s lineup. Seijou Kaito, quick-witted, very masculine, and with a marvelous contralto, was clearly sticking around and the young, rambunctious Tamaki Ryo had a promising stage presence but with Asumi’s departure, a wave of retirements, and greenhorns too green to take leading roles, there was still a big gap. Enter Miya Rurika from Star Troupe, Nagina Ruumi from Cosmos Troupe, and Sao Kurama from Snow Troupe--three very talented and rather odd looking Takarasiennes whose skills had not been fully utilized in their original troupes. Welcome to Moon Troupe.
Miya Rurika is all pointy chin and big eyes. She has a developed a flair for the darkly attractive villain roles, the Alan Rickman of Moon Troupe, if you will. Nagina Ruumi, who took her stage name from Rumi the poet, has a round, earnest face matched with a goofy sense of humor and gawky limbs. Sao Kurama is an incredible ham. Her talents in singing, acting, and dancing counterbalanced with the desire to go broad to get a good laugh. When it came time to divide up roles for 1789, it was almost too perfect-- Miya as the sleazy nobleman, Nagina taking the earnest lawyer, Sao as the jocular Danton, with Seijou as the whip-cracking sadist and hot blooded Tamaki as Robespierre.
Although the French Revolution may seem like an odd fit for a Japanese ladies theater company, the story has been a popular one in Takarazuka since the late 1970s when the first adaptation of popular manga ベルサイユのばら (The Rose of Versailles) was staged. The play, which centers on a young French woman who has been raised as a man in order to join the royal guard to protect the queen, Marie Antoinette, has become a Takarazuka staple with new productions every few years. So for the typical Takarazuka audience would be very familiar with the basic events of the Revolution, as well as the romantic story of Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen. But, by the same token, because the Takarazuka audience is so familiar with the story of Marie Antoinette, a Takarazuka adaptation of 1789 needed to be significantly revised from the original.
From what I have seen and read about the original production, it was a campy, double-entendre filled, and very broad play. That is not what the women who make up the Takarazuka audience want to see. The Takarazuka adaptation has taken the story of the lovers and the music and some of the comedy but they wisely ditched the penis puns and overly broad camp humor. The king isn’t a cuckold and the queen isn’t a bitch. As woman-centered entertainment, Takarazuka heroines have dignity and agency. Marie Antoinette is given a fully rounded personality, every element played beautifully by Manaki Reika. She’s spoiled, yes, but very sympathetic.
The world of Takarazuka is vast and even if I was to study for ten years I’m not sure I’d be able to learn everything. Which doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. The next DVD release from the Moon Troupe is 舞音-MANON- / GOLDEN JAZZ, in February and then hopefully I will be able to see them live over the summer next year during my annual Japan trip.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of 1789 and Takarazuka. I built up a little collection of DVDs and other material over the last six months. I might be tempted to write more. I might not be. As I mentioned before, there is very little access to anything related to Takarazuka in English so if you want to get into the fandom… good luck? I’m happy to offer what little help I can.
Here is a nice little clip from 2014's Puck featuring all the women I mentioned above. Ryu Masaki as the sprite "Puck" with the rest of the cast playing kids, who grow up over the course of the song.
Miya's "I am God" song.
Seijou's jail number.
My favorite song, the wonderful Sao (singing first), Ryu, and Nagina doing a carousing song. Sao's wink to the audience at :30 second in kills me every time.
The "Parade" from 1789.