There’s a long tradition of men performing female roles in Japanese theatre, acting out a male fantasy of how women are supposed to behave. It’s not so strange, then, that actresses playing idealized men have struck such a chord with contemporary female audiences. This has been the successful formula of the seven-hundred-strong, all-female Takarazuka Revue Company (宝塚歌劇団), who have been thrilling audiences with their Broadway-style shows since 1914.
The company’s founder, Kobayashi Ichizō, was mightily impressed by performances of Western operas he’d seen in Tokyo. He sensed that Japanese audiences were ripe for lively Western musical dramas, but he also wanted to preserve something of Japan’s traditional theatre. So, as well as performing dance reviews and musicals, Takarazuka also act out classical Japanese plays and have developed shows from Western novels, including Gone with the Wind and War and Peace. Even manga have been adapted, with The Rose of Versailles still one of Takarazuka’s most successful and enduring productions.
Thousands of young girls apply annually to join the troupe at the age of 16, and devote themselves to a punishing routine of classes that will enable them to embody the “modesty, fairness and grace” (the company’s motto) expected of a Takarasienne, as Takarazuka members are called. They must also forsake boyfriends, but in return are guaranteed the slavish adoration of an almost exclusively female audience. The male impersonators or otoko-yaku attract the most attention from the fans, who buy so many cut flowers for their idols that the town’s shops and restaurants receive free daily deliveries of unwanted bouquets.