When someone mentions Japanese theater, the 1st thing that probably pops into your head is kabuki. Kabuki, of course, has a long tradition in Japan dating back to the early 1600s when shows were first put on for samurai.
And the image you probably have of kabuki in you head is one full of traditional music played on a koto and weird dudes with white make up making strange faces. Something probably like this:
Am I right? But, I digress. The thing that most often gets mentioned about kabuki is that it is all male. Females were banned from the theater in the early 1600s and never quite made it back on to the butai, although some attempts were unsuccessfully made. So, Kabuki is all-man show. Even the female roles are played by men.
So, how about the ladies? It is the 20th century and all, so why can’t they join the fun?
The Birth of All-woman theater in Japan
Well, in 1913, Ichizo Kobayashi, an industrialist, politician, president of Hankyu railways and just an all around cool guy wanted an attraction that would get more visitors on his railway. More people on the railway, more money for him without that much extra work.
He considered kabuki to be too old and elitist so he pretty much created the exact opposite of kabuki, the Takarazuka Revue. Instead of all men playing the parts he had all women play the parts, which at the time was obviously pretty controversial. And if you know anything about people with money and controversial stuff, you know that it just makes them more money.
Which is exactly what happened. The Revue was a huge success pretty much for the beginning. Of course the completely over-the-top costumes didn’t hurt I’m sure. Also, pretty much every single production they put on finishes off in a chorus-line Vegas-like gala with big showy costumes. This true for Guys and Gals or Gone with the Wind.
Some of the Facts
As early as 1938, a troupe from the Revue toured Europe (Germany and Italy) and a year later toured America for about 4 months. They were obviously a big hit. I can only imagine what it was like to go to one of those shows way back then.
1000s of young women from all over Japan audition every year for the 40 or so spots to get into the Takarazuka Music School, where performers train for 2 years before taking the stage. Any performer that gets accepted to the school gets a 7 year contract to perform in the revue. After their first year, they are separated into feminine and masculine performers. Masculine performers, called otokoyaku, cut their hair short and learn to talk in a more masculine manner.
The revue is broken up into 5 troupes that each have their particular style and kinds of performances they do. Hana (flower) is the most popular troupe, the so called ‘treasure chest’ of the revue. Tsuki (moon) performs more modern productions. Yuki (snow) performs more traditional dance and opera. Hoshi (star) is said to have the biggest stars. Sora (cosmos) is more experimental.
Not so unsurprisingly, most of the fans of the Takarazuka Revue are women. Some say that 90% of the audience on any one performance is women. This has led some to criticize it as a negative lesbian influence.
I encourage you to check it out if you are ever in the Osaka area. You can pick up tickets at their website.