Just stumbled through the last of Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, by Jennifer Robertson. The book isn’t great (see below), but a lot of Robertson’s ideas are interesting, and the phenomenon of Takarazuka is amazing.
Takarazuka Revue is the only theater I even considered seeing while we were in Japan, and I’m sorry we couldn’t fit it into our schedule. It’s just my kind of study, like watching outdoor dramas: a cult phenomenon, populist to the core, chock full of reactionary politics, in no way high art, and deeply beloved by a committed fan base. Given the choice, I would have taken it over kabuki or noh or butoh or even bunraku any day of the week.
Founded in 1916, Takarazuka Revue is an all-female musical theater troupe that performs in their home town of Takarazuka (north of Osaka) and in a satellite Tokyo theater.
The shows run the gamut from A to B (as per Dorothy Parker): original musical revues, or musicals, classic or modern texts adapted into musical revues (everything from Japanese folk tales to Edith Wharton novels to Oliver Stone’s JFK (um, wtf!?)). Descriptions of the shows remind me of descriptions of turn of the century American theater: an overstuffed sandwich of sentimental and sensational, with lavish production values, high melodrama, lots of romance and heartbreak, presented more as montage than narrative.
The all-female cast that performs in Takarazuka (Takarisiennes) come from the theater’s training school. After the first year of rigorous dance and musical training, actors are divided into male and female performers: otokoyaku and musumeyaku. The women are never referred to as actors by the Takarazuka administration: they are “students.” This status: a) allows their bosses to feel justified in paying them lower wages and b) keeps them from seeming threatening as professional women.
Becasue the shows are threatening in many ways, and this seems to be the tension that has kept Takarazuka a live wire for over 90 years.
On the One Hand
The Revue was founded by a Ichizo Kobayashi, a Japanese train industrialist and briefly Japan’s Secretary of Commerce. He wanted to bring more tourism (sell more train tickets) to the hot springs town of Takarazuka, and saw an opportunity for something Japan hadn’t seen since women were banished from Kabuki: females on stage. And he also wanted to create a consumer class among women.
In doing so, he was an early progenitor of Japan’s consumer culture, and reading about his vision for women as agents of commerce reminds me strongly of an idea that Ingrid floated to me a few months back, specifically talking about what’s happening in Beijing: more and more, people are trading their human rights for consumer rights. Which more on later.
Kobayashi was interested in more than commerce, however: he believed that Takarazuka could train both its “students” and audiences on the proper way of being a female in Japanese society: Good Wives, Wise Mothers, the Meiji era idea of women’s role in society written into public civic code.
Women who otherwise didn’t fit into this role, could train for it at the Revue. Other women, in watching the Revue, could have their offstage roles illuminated for them, by females and not only onnagata (Kabuki actors who play women, and apparently embody the Female Ideal.) The administrative hierarchy of Takarazuka still reinforces this ideal gender hierarchy: all the high level administrators, and the writers and directors of the shows themselves, are men.
So training and teaching the finest expression of Japanese gender roles: this was Kobayashi’s dream of Takarazuka.
On the Other Hand
Something happened which Kobayashi couldn’t control, that thing that we, as modern queer-friendly readers expect to happen when you create an all-women’s theater troup in a country where the word for “wife” comes from the same word as “in.” Meaning “inside,” as in, “inside the house.” In a country where the same worldwide anti-homosexual panic of the early 20th century swept national publications and airwaves, with the same messages that homosexuality was “perverse” and the practice of “social degenerates”–but where over 90% of said hysteria was over female same-sex relations, while male-male sex was (and continues to be) shrugged off.
Takarazuka became a huge site for female-female desire–onstage and off.
The school attracted women who wanted an independent stake in life–and ended up including a lot of dykes who would get into notorious public affairs, keeping Takarazuka on their toes with suffocating PR sweeps.
The Revue very quickly very quickly developed a passionate fan base who were (and continue to be) explicitly in the audience not the stated reactionary gender messages of the shows–but for the heat and excitement of live performance and dance numbers and for highly charismatic butches and femmes in romatic situations onstage, hot sexy androgyny.
And the stars of Takarazuka (not surprisingly) became the otokoyaku, the “male” actors, fly singing-dancing butches (or more androgynous hotties) who developed their own hordes of love-letter writing, backstage-mooning, rabid female fans. Some of these fans create their own amateur Takarazuka shows. Some of them will actually act as unpaid servants to their beloved stars.
And it seems that this tension–between the stated mission of Takarazuka in promoting gender stability–and the “unstable” slippery female desires that the shows seem to unleash–which provides the appeal for these hokey old shows.
Now, the book.
It’s been awhile since I’ve slogged through academic-speak identity politics–and boy, it is a slog. Is it just that I no longer read these books or do they no longer publish them? Has this moment of “theory” passed? I hope so.
She insists the book isn’t a history of Takarazuka, Takarazuka is just a framework through which she explores gender and sexual politics in Japan. Some of her s ideas / theories of how to read Takarazuka, and how she places the emergence of theater in the context of a discourse of gender and sexuality in Japan, that’s all quite fine. But her presentation of research feels pretty sloppy. The book (and her few incisive insights) would have probably better been served with more historical and performance detail.
Unfortunately, it’s the only book like that out there.