When the Hankyū railway tycoon Kobayashi Ichizū laid a line out to the tiny spa town of Takarazuka (宝塚), 20km northwest of Ōsaka, in 1911, he had an entertainment vision that extended way beyond soothing onsen dips. By 1924 he’d built the Takurazuka Grand Theatre (宝塚大劇場), which has been home ever since to the all-female musical drama troupe the Takarazuka Revue. Some 2.5 million people – mainly women – flock to the town each year to see the revues and musicals at the theatre, ten minutes’ walk southeast of the train stations, through the Hana-no-michi, or Flower Road, an elevated platform along an avenue of cherry trees, which is supposed to be like a passage leading onto the stage. Depending on the day, shows start at 11am and 3pm, or 1pm only, with no performances on Wednesday. Shows are also staged regularly in Tokyo, but most fans prefer to see the troupe on their home ground, and perhaps glimpse one of the stars on her way to and from the theatre.

As the Takarazuka Revue has both inspired and been inspired by manga, a visit to the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum (手塚治虫記念館), just beyond the Grand Theatre, is worthwhile. The museum celebrates the comic-book genius Tezuka Osamu (1928–89), creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion among many other famous manga and anime series. Tezuka was raised in Takarazuka, and this colourful museum charts his career, displays art from his books, comics and animated films, screens cartoons and gives you the chance to become an animator in the basement workshop. If you want to see more of Tezuka’s animated works, check out Kyoto’s Tezuka Osamu World.

The wonderful world of Takarazuka

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.

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