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It’s Astro Boy to the rescue

It's manga, and not a fabled theater, that lifts the gloom in Takarazuka

by Simon Bartz

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No such luck. It’s just another humongous dark-gray cloud and it’s spitting at me. “Hey!” I scream, waving my fist in the air at the darkening sky. “Leave me alone, you big gray bully!”

I came to Takarazuka to write nice things about one of Hyogo Prefecture’s most famous cities, but unfortunately the place is dead. Even the Takarazuka Revue is taking the month off. What I would give for a superhero to whisk me away right now.

It’s a freezing day in December and the streets are empty, and the odd soul I do pass looks like they’ve just stepped out of a George A. Romero zombie flick as they shuffle about faces blank. All day, I see not one smile, and not even two people having a conversation. Takarazuka might act as a sleeper town for Kobe and Osaka, but I wish it would at least snore a bit . . . make some noise.

Maybe it’s just that I’m here at the wrong time of year. In late March, I would think the Takarazuka Spring Festa is sure to breathe some life into this dead zone, as should the Oka-sho, or “Cherry Blossom Cup,” one of Japan’s top horse races, held at the JRA Hanshin Race Course in early April. And there’s also the beautiful plum garden that comes into bloom in late February at Nakayamadera Temple, where women pray for an easy birth. But on this winter day my choices are limited.

I walk east along Hananomichi, a path lined with cherry trees, and stop outside the Takarazuka Grand Theater, the home of the Takarazuka Revue, which was founded by the one-time president of Hankyu Railways Ichizo Kobayashi in 1913 and which put this town on the map.

There is an array of bronze statues outside the nationally renowned theater depicting characters from some of the massively successful shows put on there, such as “The Rose of Versailles,” as well as a plinth on which sits a bust of Kobayashi. I’m not a big fan of these Broadway-style shows, but sitting in the warmth watching some singing and dancing girls would have clearly offered some comfort. For — as a refreshing antidote to all-male kabuki — the Takarazuka Revue employs female players only. But, like I said, it’s closed in December.

My companion today, the sprightly and amiable 76-year-old Shigeo Kanaya, tells me, “If a mother thinks she has a talented daughter, her dream would be that her child would get a place here, but it’s not easy. They only employ a handful of new players each year and there are many, many applicants.”

Life improves immensely when we arrive at the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum, which sits near the end of Hananomichi.

Osamu (1926-89) was born in Toyonaka in Osaka Prefecture, but when he was 5 his family moved to Takarazuka, and he lived here for 20 years. His father loved animation and took Osamu to see films such as Fleischer’s “Popeye the Sailor” series and Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” at the local theater. His mother would take him to the Takarazuka Revue. In school he enjoyed drawing manga, but during the Pacific War drawing cartoons (and having fun) was considered insensitive, and Osamu was regarded as a problem student.

Later he would cut his teeth writing manga for local newspapers and Revue publications and he also introduced a “star system” in his manga, treating some of his characters as “real actors” who would appear in various comic strips in different guises. He felt his readers would relate to them more if he did this. In 1963, his character Astro Boy (who made his debut in “Captain Atom,” 1951) appeared in animation on TV and rapidly became a marketing phenomenon, and Osamu was well and truly made for life.

A beret, eye glasses and a bulbous nose come to mind when people think of Osamu and in an autobiographical comic strip, “Boku no Shonen Jidai” (“My Boyhood,” 1955), he wrote that his nose became bulbous because he picked it prolifically as a child.

The museum contains a manga library, photos of Osamu at work, a pair of spectacles and a beret he wore, the remains of a particularly hefty booger he scavenged from a nostril when penning the first Astro Boy strip (no, I made that last one up) and a small theater, which — no surprises, this is Takarazuka after all — is totally empty. Nevertheless, a film is running about the history of Astro Boy.

Stretching across one wall in the museum is a fascinating spreadsheet charting the lifelines of Osamu’s various characters — the year they were “born” and how long the various series lasted. It’s color coded to show whether the cartoon strips were aimed at children, teenagers or adults.

The most fun, especially for kids, is to be had in the interactive area. You sit behind computer screens, draw your own characters and plop them into psychedelic alien worlds or, say, a simple kitchen. You can also experience ancient animation techniques by spinning machines by hand, and there are even miniature holograms of characters who seem to be standing before you but when you go to touch them, your hand passes right through. I had to be dragged out of the place.

Kanaya and I hop into a cab and head to Kohama Juku (Kohama Old Town), and I ask the taxi driver if there’s an entertainment district in Takarazuka where I might later find a lively shitamachi (old town)-style izakaya (Japanese-style restaurant). “There’s no places here like that,” he grunts. “You can try the Minami-guchi area of the station, but I doubt you’ll have much luck. This is a quiet town.” That’s a contender for understatement of the year.

We get out at Gosho-ji Temple in Kohama Juku and, in the grounds, the elderly Kanaya jumps up like a kid and plucks a plump persimmon off a tree. He takes a bite out of it and hands it to me. It tastes good so I snatch a few as omiyage (gifts) for the friend I’m staying with in Kyoto.

Kohama Juku prospered as a post town in the Edo Period (1603-1867) as it was part of a pilgrimage route to Kyoto and many inns sprung up here. But now it’s even deader than the rest of Takarazuka. We pass just a handful of people during an hourlong stroll, including Kimiyo Kitagaki, who is using chopsticks to delicately stir and smooth out wood ash in a large urn at the tiny but fabled Kubi Jizo shrine. I ask her what she’s doing and she says, “I don’t really know, but I tidy these ashes every day in the hope that this Jizo will protect me,” and then she nods toward the two huge stone Buddha heads beside the shrine — one relatively new and the other old and disfigured.

“The older Buddha head used to be in a building here but it burned down and that’s why its face is damaged,” says Kanaya. “The local people thought that the Buddha caused the fire because he felt claustrophobic sitting inside so that’s why both of them now sit out there in the open!”

As we head back in a taxi to the station, the sun slowly sinks behind the mountains to our right, leaving their peaks shimmering with a red glow, the only sign of warmth all day. I bid farewell to Kanaya and begin circling round the station in search of any sign of life emanating from an izakaya — somewhere where I can carouse with the locals, get hopelessly drunk, and hear some interesting stories about Takarazuka.

There are few eateries, and each one I pass is empty and characterless, looking like it was constructed a week ago. I give up my search after about an hour as it has started to rain and a fierce cold wind is ripping down from the mountains to compound my misery.

Back at my friend’s house in Kyoto,I hand him the persimmons and tell him that I found Takarazuka devoid of atmosphere.

“Lots of rich people live there. They are snobs,” he says bluntly. “It’s also been rebuilt, especially after the earthquake (Great Hanshin Earthquake, 1995) damaged it, and the soul has been sucked out of the place. If it ever had any.”

Well, anyway, I’m sure Takarazuka will be much nicer when you’re not risking death from frostbite. And if it’s still as dead come spring as it is now, then Astro Boy is always at hand to save the day.

The official Takarazuka Revue Web site is at kageki.hankyu.co.jp/ The Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum is at7-65 Mukogawa-cho; ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for students; closed Wednesdays. Takarazuka is about an hour from Kyoto by train; tickets cost about ¥1,000. Shigeo Kanaya is a volunteer guide/translator. For more info on these services check www.hyogo-tourism.jp Please send questions or comments to simon.bartz888@japantimes.co.jp