As one in a series of special productions to mark its centennial, Takarazuka — Japan’s longest-standing theater company with all-female casts — is reviving “The Rose of Versailles — Oscar,” its 1972 hit adaptation of an acclaimed manga series by Riyoko Ikeda that, in numerous productions since, has clocked up a total audience of more than 4.8 million.
In his program notes for this staging by Cosmos Troupe, the newest of the company’s five resident ensembles, director Masazumi Tani points out that this show has inspired countless aspiring actresses to audition for a place in the Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture-based Takarazuka Music School — and that “it is also a show that fans approach with especially high expectations.”
In part, this is certainly due to the show’s canonical status in the Takarazuka repertory, but also because the 1972-73 manga on which it is based, commonly known as “Beru-bara,” is so well known through different media, including a TV series that started in 1979.
However, the work’s distinguished provenance also puts tremendous pressure on its Takarazuka producers and performers. As playwright, lyricist and director Shinji Ueda, 81 — who has worked on this show since its conception — has pointed out, maintaining its continuity while revising productions for contemporary audiences is a delicate balance.
One of the main reasons why Takarazuka’s marriage with Ikeda’s “Rose of Versailles” has been so harmonious and productive is that they each share grandiose and romanticized Western settings and are centered on a beautiful woman dressed as a man. Indeed, many fans of the story in both formats are attracted by the complex gender and sexuality issues surrounding the heroine, Oscar — a role always reserved for top Takarazuka stars specializing in male roles.
In the current revival, Kaname Oki plays Oscar François de Jarjayes, a French girl raised as a man in order to become her aristocrat father’s heir. As the bloody French Revolution of 1789 looms, though, Oscar’s nobility, good looks and valor have propelled her to become a shining leader of the Imperial Guard — and a confidante of doomed Queen Marie Antoinette.
However, Oscar is torn between class loyalty and her desire to help the poor, while her dilemma as an aristocratic woman living as a military man only deepens. Finally, these tensions culminate in a night of passion the slender star shares with a childhood friend named André Grandier, who acts as her servant, before they join the revolutionaries and are killed by loyalist soldiers.
With her experience of playing Oscar in a production by another of the company’s troupes last year, Oki exhibits extraordinary skill in the way she portrays the heroine’s struggles with a double identity in society and within herself — expertly emphasizing her androgynous sexuality, even in that love scene so discreetly suggested on stage.
The repressed femininity of Oki’s Oscar is only really released in the climactic finale scenes, when she dances a tango in a black sparkling dress with a red rose adorning her long fair hair. Looking then like she has stepped straight out of Ikeda’s manga, she certainly adds a new page to the history of Takarazuka’s version of “Beru-bara.”
“The Rose of Versailles — Oscar” runs till June 2 at Takarazuka Grand Theater, a 10-min. walk from Takarazuka Station on the JR and Hankyu lines. It then moves to the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater in Yurakucho from June 20-July 27. For more details, visit kageki.hankyu.co.jp.