Burlesque dancer does it for laughs

by Barbara Bayer

A search of the Web for Murasaki Babydoll will likely snag you a six-minute Time video from this year’s New York Burlesque Festival and with it a look at the Tokyo burlesque troupe’s festival debut.

Just over four minutes into the video the host asks a Japanese woman in a neon yellow bob her name. When three attempts to convey that name don’t click she spells it out. “A-n-n-i-e, Annie!!” she shouts feistily and raises her hand high to whoops, hollers and wild applause from the New York Saturday night crowd.

She’s a crowd-pleaser, this Annie, with spunk that transcends borders. Annie is otherwise known as Ryoko Hashimoto, one of five “babydolls” in a troupe that has caused a stir in Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York as well as Japan.

Hailed by American burlesque buffs for its uniquely Japanese over-the-top mix of cute and sexy, Murasaki Babydoll was reportedly the only troupe to garner a standing ovation at the Tease-O-Rama Burlesque Convention in San Francisco in 2005. The group also won best troupe at the Las Vegas Miss Exotic World Pageant & Striptease Reunion in 2006.

Hashimoto joined the four years ago after a former member asked her to come see them, then asked, “Want to join?” “My first reaction was, ‘Huh?’ I thought, ‘What the h*ll?!’ But they made me laugh, so I decided to give it a try.”

Stage performance, especially burlesque, had not been in the Osaka native’s plans, though she admits she was never “a planner.” Now 26 years old, Hashimoto arrived in Tokyo at the age of 18 to attend a design school and study art with the aim of making stage sets for TV. After finding out she’d been duped by the school’s misleading advertising and that there was no regular art teacher, she ended up doing a two-year lighting course, then found herself drawn more and more to performing.

Hashimoto had acquired a taste for the stage from doing local musicals in high school and the attraction was all the greater when there was audience participation, as is often the case with burlesque. “Really, sometimes it seems there are people out in the audience doing more than we are.”

The burlesque part, though, wasn’t a natural fit. “I never thought I’d be good at erotic stuff. I guess I didn’t have the confidence.” And the idea of taking most of her clothes off was rather, well, off-putting. But, her feelings changed.

“I don’t really think it’s that erotic. It’s interesting, fun. I don’t think anyone’s really sexy,” Hashimoto says, possibly inviting criticism from her colleagues. Those in the audience, too, may disagree about the erotic part as they watch the five girls, Eva, Matilda, Annie, Zima and Coppe, strip their “teacher” down to his G-string and spank him, or see them wriggle out of their sailor uniforms down to white bikinis, and then nothing but pasties. “It’s healthy,” Hashimoto claims, though twirling nipple tassles in unison has yet to hit the aerobic studios. “You have to practice twirling them all together in one direction, then switch and twirl them the other direction,” she explains. “I thought it’d be hard but it’s not. They’re made to twirl easily.”

Murasaki Babydoll was first begun in 2003, by “Eva,” the group’s current headliner. It made its debut in New York two years later through a Yokohama-sponsored event. The group established its own contacts and regular appearances in the States followed. Crowds, numbering 400-1,000, received the Japanese group with enthusiasm. In Japan, the group performs regularly at clubs and sometimes wedding parties, usually about four times a month with audiences numbering 30-50, nearly always under 100. They also performed at Fuji Rock Festival in 2006.

Hashimoto finds the American audiences impressive, “amazing” and “powerful.” At the September N.Y. festival she says, “I almost started crying, it was all so overwhelming,” In the U.S., she says “when you’re good you know it. When you’re bad you know it. The American audience is so upfront, so straightforward with its response.”

It’s not the acclaim or the fame that attracts Hashimoto. “Laughter, making people laugh, having them make me laugh, that’s why I do it,” she says. “If you’re feeling down, if I’m feeling down, once we’re out there, there’s just no not feeling happy. It’s really an amazing kind of power.”

Hashimoto grew up with laughter in Osaka’s Toyonaka. The middle child of three, the Hashimoto household consisted of seven, including two grandparents. “We were always together, eating together, talking, laughing together.” Coming to Tokyo from Osaka was difficult for her. “I really wanted to go back. I was so homesick. I couldn’t speak Osaka dialect with people. I was in a student dorm with a shared room. I couldn’t stand it. But, finally I started making friends.” Hashimoto now makes the trip to Osaka about twice a year. Her parents, she says, don’t really know exactly what she does and would probably be shocked to find out. “They know it’s something a bit erotic, but . . . well, they don’t know about the pasties.”

When she’s not performing, she’s practicing, or designing Web sites and pamphlets at a part-time job, or tending bar at two Golden Gai spots (Yumeji and Baltimore). She finds likenesses between her performing and her work in Golden Gai, the catacomb of tiny drinking holes in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho. Meeting new people, talking, laughing with customers. Human interaction is what she loves about her work.

The only downer for a spontaneous person like herself comes from the constant questioning by customers about what she’s going to “do with her life.”

“I have so many dreams and I’m living a lot of them right now. I don’t think I’ll ever decide on just one. I don’t think I have to.”

In the end, Hashimoto says, “I just don’t want to die regretting I didn’t try something. Even if it means I don’t have money and have to suffer.

“If I can laugh, that’s the most important thing. I mean, when things are bad, what’s the point of staring at the ground thinking things are tough. It’s better to laugh.”

Web site: www.murasakibabydoll.com/j-index.html The troupe performs Sunday, Oct. 26 from 7 p.m. in Tokyo’s Shinjuku at Bar Exit.