A revue of Japan’s femininity

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Ichizo Kobayashi (1873-1957) was the founder of the West Japan Hankyu train line and department store in Osaka’s central Umeda district. Arguably his most significant artistic contribution was the establishment of the Takarazuka Music School in 1913, which combined a modern education with the training of young girls in stage performance embodied by the Takarazuka motto of “modesty, fairness and grace.”

As the train terminal for rail lines from Osaka’s Umeda, Takarazuka is a hot-spring resort. To commercialize the railway, Kobayashi established an all-girl troupe based upon his vision of modernizing Japanese music and performance that followed a Westernizing trend. The aim was to draw in the Osaka middle classes, and for its first decade of operation most of the audience were single males. By the late 1920s, however, its romance-inspired performances became a draw for teenage girls and couples. Today, the audience is largely female.

The Takarazuka revue aimed to establish a hybrid musical genre that aspired to Western tastes as a sign of Japan’s burgeoning modernity, while also attracting audiences with formats that were readily understandable without the need for the rarified knowledge that traditional theater, such as noh, required. Using the flashy elements of kabuki costume and boisterous movements, Takarazuka performances brought into rapprochement Western opera, musicals, ballet, contemporary Japanese theater, burlesque, Broadway and can-can dancing.

While Westernizing, however, the musical troupe conspired an assortment of Japanese/Western ensembles. The first performance in 1914, “Donburako,” was based on “Momotaro,” a popular folk tale about a boy born from a peach. Later Japanese adaptations also included a 1952 version of “Tale of Genji.”

As the forerunner to modern girl groups such as AKB48, the Takarazuka revue established the Flower and Moon troupes in 1921, with the latter doing famous Western-style performances including “Mon-Paris,” “The Rose of Versailles” and “Gone with the Wind.” The Snow troupe was added in 1924, and in 1933 it established the Star troupe. An additional Cosmos troupe was added in 1998 for Tokyo-based performances.

Each group has its own stars, the female entertainers playing lead male roles in a gender reversal of historical kabuki theater performances. “Superior members,” however, such as current-day Yu Todoroki, work across the individual troupes to cater to particular performance needs.

Despite the male roles, when the troupes performed abroad from 1938, they were required to be the embodiment of the idealized female of Japan, known as yamato nadeshiko. In Europe on their second international tour in 1965, for example, all the performers were photographed in kimono in front of the Eiffel Tower, playing up the idealized conventions of refined Japanese femininity. The thrust of this exhibition at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, through costumes and stage sets in addition to a plethora of posters and other promotional materials, is to show 100 years of stars in their most glamorous roles.

“Takarazuka Revue 100th Anniversary Exhibition” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs till Sept. 28; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp