Takarazuka groupies do it by the book

Hard-core fans of all-female troupe follow etiquette, pecking order

by Kanako Takahara

Akiko Okawara, 37, comes to Tokyo Takarazuka Theater almost every day to catch a stage-door glimpse of Sumire Haruno, a top star who plays a male role in the Takarazuka all-female theater troupe, even when she is not taking in the show.

“It’s because she is so attractive,” said Okawara, who has already seen the latest show more than a dozen times in less than a month.

Okawara is one of many devotees whose lives literally revolve around Takarazuka and their favorite stars; they regularly wait for them to show up, watch the plays until they memorize the lines and wear matching fan jackets.

Takarazuka is well-known for its all-female troupe, in which actresses play the parts of both men and women. Women make up more than 90 percent of the audience.

But the hard-core Takarazuka fans, many of them members of unofficial fan clubs of their favorite stars, are themselves a spectacle.

Unlike the seemingly crazed groupies of some rock stars, Takarazuka aficionados follow strict, self-imposed codes of behavior.

While waiting outside the theater, they form a gallery, with those in the front rows required to sit when an actress appears so that fans in the back have a better view. Another reason fans reportedly sit in the presence of actresses is that it is a sign of respect, keeping their eye-level lower than those of the stars.

The fans refrain from shouting, clapping, or touching the actresses, and try not to bother passersby.

Machiko Fujita, who said she used to take in about 20 Takarazuka performances a month, said fans know they must behave in order that they not tarnish the reputation of their favorite stars.

“Good manners are important for fans,” Fujita said. “If the fans’ manners are bad, their favorite stars would be bad-mouthed by others.”

Takarazuka fans vary in age from teenagers to those in their 80s, but core fan club members are in their 30s and 40s and have enough time and money to maintain their devotion to the troupe’s shows and other activities.

Although there are roughly 70,000 official Takarazuka fan club members, most enthusiasts belong to some 300 unofficial groups devoted to specific actresses.

As a tacit rule, most of these groups emerge four or five years after the favored actress joins the troupe, Takarazuka watchers say. A top star’s fan club would have 1,000 or more members.

Tatsuya Kusaba, author of “Takarazuka no Hosoku” (“Rules of Takarazuka”), noted the strict fan behavior rules came about either spontaneously or were handed down by earlier fans.

Kusaba, a well-known collector of Takarazuka-related goods, said the troupe’s seniority system is reflected in the fan clubs as well. Those groups devoted to senior Takarazuka members are considered “higher in rank” than those of junior actresses.

“When fans wait for their favorite actress to emerge from the stage door, those of senior Takarazuka members get to sit closest to the door,” Kusaba said, noting fans of senior actresses would scold any other devotees not following the proper etiquette.

Although age may not be the most important element when the troupe assigns roles for its actresses, it is on other occasions.

Actresses’ seniority is determined by the year in which they graduated from the Takarazuka Music School.

The “upper-graders” are listed first in each show’s brochure, get the best slots back stage and get better hotel rooms and transportation during local tours. Among those who graduated in the same year, those with better grades get better treatment.

Although officials at Hankyu Corp., which runs the Takarazuka theater group, refused to comment on the individual fan clubs because they are “not official,” a former troupe member said actresses depend heavily on the devotion of these clubs.

“Since Takarazuka members don’t have agents or attendants like other celebrities, fans take care of them in turns,” said Seiko Sakuragi, who currently serves as a Takarazuka guide on the Internet site All About Japan.

According to Sakuragi, some hard-core fans make boxed lunches for their actresses, drive them to and from lessons and theaters, and guard them from crazed fans — all without pay.

Takarazuka devotees reportedly began to form such clubs in the 1960s, although the history of the troupe itself goes back nearly a century.

Formed by Hankyu Corp. founder Ichizo Kobayashi, Takarazuka held its first performance in 1914 as a girls’ operetta troupe in the hot springs town of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture.

Kobayashi, who had also served as commerce and industry minister, hoped that more people would travel by Hankyu railway to an suburban amusement facility.

The troupe changed its name to Takarazuka Revue Co. in 1940 and was divided into four groups — Flower, Moon, Snow and Star — with top stars in each group. Another group, Cosmos, was formed in 1998.

Takarazuka members take their basic music, dance and singing lessons at Takarazuka Music School, which is also well-known for its strict manners.

Yutaka Matsui, assistant professor of social psychology at Tsukuba University who once studied the mind-set of Takarazuka fans, noted that, in many cases, a liking for Takarazuka is shared among generations within a family.

“Daughters become fans after witnessing their mothers’ craze for Takarazuka,” Matsui said. “It is a unique phenomenon at a time when parents are having trouble communicating with their children.”

Many attribute Takarazuka’s popularity to its gaiety, the popularity of actresses, especially those playing the male roles, and the simple plot involving romance that is easy to understand.

But Takarazuka watcher Kusaba also noted that fans are like patrons who enjoy watching their favorite actress improve her dancing or singing ability over the years and gradually rise in popularity.

“One can see the rank of an actress by where she is lined up in the play or the order in which she appears in the finale,” Kusaba said. “If the actress appears nearer to the end (than previously), then it means she is getting popular.”

Fans who have supported a given actress since she was a Takarazuka Music School student enjoy seeing her climb the ladder to stardom, he said.