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Fantasy girls: the enduring lesbian appeal of Japan's all-female theater troupe.

When I first encountered the Takarazuka Revue, it was in the briefest of blurbs in my pocket guide to Tokyo: "All-female revue, mostly female audience." I was looking for some sign of lesbian life beyond the few couples I'd seen in public together, only one pair catching each other's hands in the press of pedestrian traffic. A quick Internet search revealed the intense devotion of Takarazuka fans, and I was hooked, desperate to see it, and without a ticket.

Based on my American notions of an all-female production staged for an almost exclusively female audience, I was expecting the black-box-theater equivalent of a dive bar. But kitschy underground is not what the Takarazuka has to offer, and instead I found myself lining up in front of the grand-staircased, crimson-carpeted, velvet-seated Takarazuka Tokyo Theater early on a Saturday morning, hoping to get a ticket for the 11 a.m. show, while other women--women who knew enough to buy their tickets well in advance--gathered together in groups demarcated by scarf color. The scarves identify the fan clubs of each popular otokoyaku (male role player) and musumeyaku (female role player), and the scarf-wearing women arrive early to each and every performance in order to line up, front rows kneeling, and ritualistically proffer cards and small gifts to their favorite stars. (Since it was chilly, I walked up wearing an eggshell blue scarf picked through with maroon and navy paisley, leading to a lot of warily appraising looks from fans trying to figure out my seemingly lunatic proclamation of allegiance.)

Once everyone has arrived, over 1,000 women routinely press Into the theater and head straight to the gift shop for the mass consumption of souvenirs featuring gender-bending faces--the otokoyaku are women meant to play male without ever becoming too masculine. Described constantly as "ideal men," the otokoyaku embody everything heroic, romantic, and handsome in a highly stylized notion of masculinity, one that is never disappointingly confined to reality. The goal isn't impeccable drag king or indistinguishable androgyny, but rather a carefully cultivated physicality; specific modes of speech and behavior are taught to each generation of otokoyaku by their predecessors, all to please the desires of their female audience.

The musumeyaku, on the other hand, are meant to also play highly stylized gender roles, but their exaggerated femininity is a prop to the otokoyaku. The Takarazuka Revue's English language website declares, "Despite being women, the otokoyaku wear an air of male sexuality, while the musumeyaku help them stand out. If one or the other were gone, the Takarazuka Revue would be nothing." The website also notes that the otokoyaku can be most easily distinguished by their short hair, the musumeyaku by their long hair. And it is true--the gender binary is so clearly enforced on stage that you will never lose track of whether a character is male or female. It's no wonder, then, that the otokoyaku, who are women performing outside of the gender norms they were born into, are more popular with the audience than the women who are stuck in heteronormative femininity.

The revue was founded in 1914 by Hankyu Railway executive Ichizo Kobayashi; its purpose was to lure train passengers to a failed resort, where the first audiences sat in what had previously been the in-ground swimming pool. But the founder's commercial enterprise had always been twinned with a social aim--as Jennifer Robertson, a professor of anthropology and art history at the University of Michigan and the author of Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, notes: "Kobayashi's ostensible intentions in having females perform as men on stage was to allow potentially disruptive 'modern girls' to sow their oats in a sanctioned context [the revue], and later, when they retired, to parlay their firsthand experience of performing as men into their 'real' profession as married women. He believed that otokoyaku made the best wives, as, having performed as men, they would be able to anticipate and satisfy the needs of their real-life husbands."

With the goal of protecting the revue from an unsavory reputation (women on stage had previously been outlawed in Japan due to prostitution in kabuki theaters) and promoting the concept of the female revue as societal betterment, the Takarazuka Music School is the highly selective two-year performing arts school from which every Takarasienne (think "Parisienne") must graduate--after a curriculum of dance, singing, drama, and strict etiquette; this last subject is taught by military personnel and enforced by the senior class. Most students, and even many performing Takarasiennes, live in the school's dormitory, and all must live by the unwritten Violet Code of Behavior, which is premised on a motto that translates as either "Modesty, Fairness, and Grace" or "Purely, Righteously, Beautifully."

Students and performers are to remain virginal and unmarried--virginal to uphold the morality of the revue, unmarried in order not to spoil the pure, righteous, beautiful fantasy of both the fans and the Takarasiennes themselves. Of course, there can be a difference between perception--or promoted corporate image--and reality, and asking hundreds of young women at a time to suspend their feelings and desires for years is, well, asking quite a lot.

Leonie R. Stickland, who is the author of Gender Gymnastics: Performing and Consuming Japan's Takarazuka Revue, a lecturer in Japanese at Murdoch University in Australia, and a former translator and voice actor for the revue herself, repeated to me a story she heard from a Takarasienne friend: "During her two years at the Takarazuka Music School, nearly everyone was part of a 'couple,' as was she herself, but only the individuals themselves knew whether these couplings included any actual sexual behavior. Then again, according to her, many of the girls who lived at the Violet Dormitory (Sumire Ryo) also experimented with dating boys, because for many of them it was the first time they were not under the watchful eye of their parents 24/7."

This echoes what former Takarasienne and now out lesbian and LGBT activist Koyuki Higashi told me, via her wife, Hiroko Masuhara, who acted as our translator. Higashi knew she was a lesbian when she attended the music school, right out of high school, but before then she'd had only one lesbian friend and, given the taboo against being gay at the time and Takarazuka's strictness, felt she "couldn't tell anyone." She knew there was something like relationships between other students, but it was never very clear what sort these were. "If there was a relationship, they didn't tell anyone."

Stickland adds, "Even if Takarazuka Music School students or performers do form same-sex couples with one another, or sometimes with a person outside the revue, this is not seen as choosing to be a lesbian, and is definitely not seen as a lifelong choice. If anything, they have to learn to be the targets of love and affection from women who play the opposite gender in their stage roles, and their off-stage behavior perhaps could be interpreted as practicing for their stage roles."

Within the revue's administration, public adamance against any suggestion of lesbianism probably stems from its early history, when, as Robertson notes in Takarazuka, an alleged affair in 1929 between otokoyaku Miyako Nara and film actress Yaeko Mizutani got into the press; and when the rival Shochiku Revue's female role player Eriko Saijo and her partner, Yasumare Masuda, attempted a double suicide in 1935, this also made it into the papers. According to Robertson's research, articles from the 1930s blamed otokoyaku for an increase in lesbianism, and for a time, Takarasiennes were not allowed to respond to fan mail.

But today, relationships that aren't seen as threatening to the company's image may be tolerated, given that Takarazuka employs many people, and their lifestyles and points of view are bound to be more various than what company policy dictates. Stickland knows about a Takarasienne troupe leader who, with her transgender partner, "ran a bar that was frequented by many performers and staff from the revue. Everyone knew that the two were living together."

She adds, "I know another couple who have been together for decades--again, not top stars, but very well-respected performers. Everyone knew that they were a couple. I suspect that a top star, whose popularity is seen to be in jeopardy from rumors of her same-sex pairing, might be told by the administration to be more discreet, or, if it were thought to be more effective, perhaps she and her partner would be placed in different troupes, so that they would hardly ever be in the same place at the same time! I have heard rumors about one pair who were apparently split up in that way, against their wishes."

Not only has the administration been silent on the subject of Higashi and Masuhara's symbolic wedding at Tokyo DisneySea in 2013, though it was reported in the international media, it has also declined to comment on the marriage certificate they received from Tokyo's Shibuya Ward in 2015, though theirs was the first same-sex marriage certificate issued in Japan. Some of Higashi's classmates have been supportive, and a Takarasienne two years her senior sang at their wedding. Some fans have had a positive reaction as well, while others have called it "annoying" because, Masuhara told me, "Some people already think Koyuki's fans are lesbians because they like Takarazuka, and her coming out would reinforce this Image." Higashi and Masuhara estimate that there are about 4,000 past and present Takarazuka actresses--and so far, only Higashi has come out publicly.

The documentary Dream Girls, from Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams (also watch Shinjuku Boys), gives the best glimpse of how fervently fans love Takarazuka--second only to witnessing it for yourself. "Admiration"--or. In Japanese, akogare--is the word consistently used. This also means that Takarasiennes are never off the clock--not where they might possibly encounter a fan. "Fans will write letters to their favorite performer, often giving appraisals of her performance, and this may include comments about her appearance and demeanor offstage.

Certainly, the onstage gender tends to be reflected in the clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and colors that the performers wear offstage, as there is always such a crowd outside the stage door, and so the performers are scrutinized--and these days are likely to be filmed and uploaded to YouTube. One of my close friends, an otokoyaku in the early 1980s, told me that her girlfriend [a more senior musumeyaku] would coach her on how to walk, talk, smoke, and everything, molding my friend Into the musumeyaku's ideal Image of an otokoyaku," Stickland says.

It is all about the dream world of Takarazuka, after all. In that space, under those lights, the Takarasiennes know exactly how to draw the audience in. When I saw Don Carlos, the entire house wept. Everyone--all the way back to the last, unofficial row in the balcony, where metal folding chairs had been placed for the over-capacity crowd--leaned forward in their seats, as though physically pulled toward the tragic love on the stage. Opera glasses were removed only long enough to wipe away tears.

It was no gimmick that every performer onstage was a woman. Hollywood may still be struggling with whether female leads can carry a film, but the Takarasiennes give the lie to that every time they perform to an enthralled audience and a packed house. Even with a language barrier, watching the physicality and facial expressions on a stage filled only with women--regardless of the gender they perform--and feeling the control they have over that audience with their bodies and their voices, their power over the mood of the entire room Is a thing to behold.

It has been pointed out so frequently that Takarazuka is not a lesbian theater that the effect of the warning/ admonition/company line has become farcical to me. Takarazuka is not a lesbian theater, except that ... when you gather thousands of women together for over a century of shared culture and history In an environment based on adoration and admiration between women, then lesbians are exceptionally well positioned to understand and recognize all that akogare--admiration/longing/yearning/ aspiration.

And this July, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, we'll be able to experience that unique brand of Takarazuka-induced akogare for ourselves.


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Author:Hasu, Sarah Toshiko
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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