The History of the All-Female Japanese Theatre Troupe That Is Bringing Chicago to NYC

News   The History of the All-Female Japanese Theatre Troupe That Is Bringing Chicago to NYC Get to know the history of Japan’s all-female Takarazuka Revue, which is currently performing the Kander and Ebb hit Chicago in New York.
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The Roxie Harts – Yuga Yamato, Broadway cast member Bianca Marroquín, Hikaru Asami Wire Image

Presented as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival, the production of Chicago features Takarazuka's signature all-female cast in the Kander & Ebb show about corruption of the courts and media in the Windy City of the 1920s. The production features Saori Mine, Saki Asaji, Asato Shizuki, Yoka Wao, Wataru Kozuki, Hikaru Asami, Natsuki Mizu and Yuga Yamato. You can snag tickets here.

So, how did the Takarazuka Revue arrive at Chicago? Read up on their history below.

The all-female Takarazuka Revue was founded in 1913 by Kobayashi Ichizō, an innovative industrialist who six years earlier had established what is today the transnational Hankyū Hanshin Holdings, Inc. When a public swimming pool complex he built in Takarazuka, then a hot springs resort 15 miles west of Osaka, failed to attract users, Kobayashi turned the facility into an opulent theater. The savvy impresario believed that an all-female revue would become a commercially viable alternative to the 400 year-old all-male Kabuki theater—and he was right.

Kobayashi recruited teenage girls who, after nine months of training in the performing arts, debuted in 1914 as the first Takarasiennes in a play based on the folktale Momotarō (Peach Boy), about a heroic boy born from a peach. Today, with two huge theaters in Takarazuka and Tokyo, and regularly scheduled regional and international tours, not to mention television and radio broadcasts, the Revue remains one of the most widely recognized and watched of the “theaters for the masses” that were created in the early 20th century. For most of its history, Takarazuka, billed as “wholesome family entertainment,” attracted fans of both sexes; today, mainly women of all ages fill the auditoriums.

“From its debut over a century ago, the Takarazuka Revue has been in the business of selling dreams—of romance, of mysterious lands, of luxurious lifestyles.”

Kobayashi hired talented playwrights and musicians who created many original productions, such as Japan’s first Parisian-style revue, Mon Paris (1927), a panoramic voyage from Asia to Europe via the Middle East. Takarazuka productions range from Japanese historical dramas, such as the Tale of Genji, to comic book–based dramas, such as the Revue’s trademark The Rose of Versailles, to American musicals, such as West Side Story and Oklahoma! In the ’30s and ’40s, the Revue’s repertoire included propaganda plays and dramas set in “exotic” locales within the Japanese empire.

When Kobayashi founded the Revue, stage acting was regarded as something only loose women did. By establishing a performing arts school (with the motto "Purity, Honesty, Beauty") he helped to transform acting into a respectable profession for women. Since 1919, all Revue actors must graduate from the two-year Takarazuka Music School. They remain among the best-trained musical theater performers in Japan. Many well-known actresses graduated from the music school or retired from the Revue to pursue careers in show business.

The school, one of the most competitive in Japan, accepts about 40 teenagers each spring. Divided into deferential juniors and domineering seniors, the young women live in a dormitory and must conform to a strict and strenuous regimen of training, which for juniors includes the meticulous cleaning of the rehearsal room. They are also divided into otokoyaku (players of men’s roles) and musumeyaku (players of women’s roles). The former tend to be taller and have more angular features, the latter shorter with rounder features. The otokoyaku learn how to stride and adopt a wide stance, the musumeyaku to take mincing steps. Once they graduate and join the Revue proper, their natural attributes are augmented by greasepaint and costume: men should have darker skin, thicker eyebrows, and straighter shoulders, while women should have lighter skin, delicately arched eyebrows, and rounded shoulders. The femininity embodied and enacted by the musumeyaku serves as a foil for the masculinity of the otokoyaku.

From its debut over a century ago, the Takarazuka Revue has been in the business of selling dreams—of romance, of mysterious lands, of luxurious lifestyles. In addition, many female fans have said that they see the otokoyakuas a female unconstrained by a sexual and gendered division of labor, thus feeding an offstage dream of liberating self-sufficiency.

(Jennifer Robertson is a Professor of Anthropology and History of Art at the University of Michigan. Her book, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, was published by University of California Press.)

(Republished with permission of Lincoln Center Festival.)

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