Ask your average Japanese person or non-native Japanophile to name a “traditional” form of domestic theater and the classics such as kabuki and noh would feature prominently. Bunraku puppetry may even get the odd mention, particularly in its ancestral home of Osaka.

Few, however, would name the theater genre that fills more audience seats every year, day in and day out, than any other in the land.

That form of theater is Takarazuka — or Takarazuka Revue, to give the musical theater troupe its formal title. For most, this stage entertainment named after the provincial town in Hyogo Prefecture where it started, and is still based, is about little more than glitz and glamour, songs and dance, clouds of grand-finale ostrich feathers, women playing women — and women playing men. At least that’s the popular stereotype.

In reality, to any fan of live theater, Japanese or not, Takarazuka — even with all the pomp and costume changes near the end of a show — is just as deep, and as historical in many of the works it stages, as male-only kabuki or noh.

Often, it is far more moving than they are to modern audiences familiar with movies such as “Casablanca” or “The King’s Speech” — or stage performances from Europe such as “The Scarlet Pimpernel” or the Viennese musical “Elisabeth.”

Each of these and many other globally renowned shows besides have been performed — almost always to packed houses — both in the capital’s Takarazuka Theater in Hibiya and in its home theater not far from Kobe and Osaka.

But it wasn’t always so.

Back in 1913, one Ichizo Kobayashi, the founder and president of Hankyu Railway Co. that operated in the northern part of the Kansai region had the bright idea of entertaining visitors at the hot-spring resort of Takarazuka using a band of singing and dancing girls — and profiting by selling more train tickets on his company’s line linking the town with nearby population centers.

The unusually outgoing Taisho Era — sandwiched, from 1912-26, between its straight-laced Meiji predecessor and Showa Era fascism to come — had just begun. Increasingly, the West was influencing more and more this nation that had, well within living memory, been a feudal military dictatorship under the Tokugawa shoguns since 1603, with armed samurai a common sight in everyday life.

And in Takarazuka, the town, history was being made as the company that was brought together exactly 100 years ago, in 1913, took to the stage for the first time a year later in a performance called “Donburako” — based on the old folk tale “Momotaro,” about a hero youth found as a baby inside a peach bobbing down a stream — thereby sowing the seeds for a century of theater to come.

The next 30 years saw a huge expansion in the scale of performances, and a resulting increase in popularity as Hankyu made enough profit to soon purchase their own theater buildings — one in Takarazuka, which now has a population of around 220,000, and another in Tokyo.

However, with the approach of World War II, things became somewhat more austere, and even though the shows went on, performances were — like so many other aspects of life — geared toward raising nationalistic morale and fostering the general war effort.

In the postwar years, with the Allied Occupation forces at one time reportedly pondering whether or not to ban kabuki, Takarazuka fortunately escaped such suspicion even though the troupe had most certainly been swept up in the zeitgeist of nationalistic militarism. Despite this, it was felt to not have the ingrained mind-set of old, so often seen in the tales of samurai loyalty and blind obedience at the core of many kabuki plays. Hence, unlike kabuki, the Takarazuka Revue was never feared in the same way by Japan’s war-victorious foreign occupiers.

In the decades since, one result of the troupe having escaped too much postwar attention has been that the Takarazuka Revue has served far more as a bridge between Eastern and Western forms of stage drama than any other in Japan. Consequently, its playlist still features versions of Korean and Chinese plays — but interspersed throughout the year with adaptations of Western books, plays and nowadays movies such as “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) or “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001).

Despite its range of cosmopolitan productions, however, Yuzuki Reon, currently the top star of the company’s top-ranked Star Troupe, in which she plays main otokoyaku (leading actor) roles, says: “Takarazuka is part of Japanese culture. Like kabuki, which has been appreciated in Japan for centuries, Takarazuka is an all-female form of theater (now) with a century of history. Its distinctive feature is the women playing male roles, and representing the ideal form of masculinity.”

It is this century of history that is now elevating Takarazuka to a ranking akin to kabuki, noh, bunraku and rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) in the eyes of many who follow Japanese theater — something Reon feels incredibly proud to be a part of.

“It is incredible that I am a (Takarazuka) top star at this time. We are here as the result of those who founded and developed this form of theater for so many generations, and we (the current members) owe our own future generations a great deal in the same way.”

Part of that debt to the future Reon refers to could well be centered not just on audiences that now number some 2.5 million annually in Japan, but also on an increased global appeal of Takarazuka, something that has not really been exploited until recent years. Indeed, a series of shows ending April 14 in Taipei will have seen 1,500 cram into the National Theater for each of the 12, 190-minute performances in the troupe’s April 6-14 run.

Noticeable there, too, was the inclusion of a show based on a Taiwanese version of the “Arsene Lupin” detective fiction by French writer Maurice Leblanc; an appeal both to the local audience base but also showcasing the fact that these hugely talented actresses can combine dance, drama and revue performances all in the same show.

Yet, it is not the “actresses playing the ideal woman” per se that most Japanese fans are attracted to, and stand outside theaters in all weathers to admire as they pass by. It is those playing the male roles that garner the lion’s share of the attention.

Since the earliest days of the Takarazuka Revue, the top otokoyaku in any of the company’s constituent Flower, Moon, Snow, Star and Cosmos sub-troupes has been at the heart of each play, each subsequent song and dance revue leading into the final curtain being brought down.

Many have tried and failed to properly analyze this particular and quite peculiar fan fascination. Among them, psychologists, experts in female studies and millions of theater fans in Japan and around the world have tried to put into words the reasons why Takarazuka Revue’s devotees are so passionate in their support of otokoyaku.

Theories abound, and are hotly debated, but when asking Reon just why she is a better man than I — and why she thinks otokoyaku are said to embody the perfect man — this male, English-born interviewer was treated to an answer delivered as factually as a mathematical equation.

“We have long researched men, and as a result of the long, thoughtful and in-depth analysis of what makes a ‘man,’ we can portray that perfect man,” she opined, before intriguingly appending: “The fact that we are females ourselves is another advantage.”

Perhaps sensing she’d left something somewhat unsaid, Reon then continued, “We, as women, know what women want, and just how they wish to be treated by men (so we also bring that into the play). Japanese guys are usually shy about following the ‘ladies first’ rules of etiquette (seen elsewhere), and (I) think as a result, female audiences like to watch us, the otokoyaku, acting in this way without giving it a second thought.”

Yet, job done, even when we leave the interview room, Reon goes first — ahead of me. Perhaps things would be different on stage …

To see a show: The troupe’s popularity can make obtaining tickets quite tricky. Same-day standing tickets are normally available to those who line up at the theater from early in the morning. Try to plan in advance if resident in Japan, or ask hotel staff for assistance if visiting. Acting independently, visit the official homepage to establish the ticket status. These are: kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english and kageki.hankyu.co.jp. The Japanese page has a lot more information on shorter runs in smaller theaters beside Takarazuka and Tokyo. Mark Buckton covers Takarazuka for magazines in Japan and North America.

Western works from the Revue’s repertoire

Over the last century, the Takarazuka musical theater troupe has performed countless adaptations of Japanese and non-Japanese works. Among the most famous overseas shows they’ve staged are the following. (Their original creators and countries of origin are in parentheses.):

“Romeo and Juliet” (William Shakespeare; England)

“Zorro” (The Gypsy Kings and John Cameron; England)

“Wuthering Heights” (Emily Bronte; England)

“An Officer and a Gentleman” (Douglas Day Stewart; U.S.)

“Ocean’s Eleven” (Ted Griffin; U.S.)

“A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens; England)

“The Sound of Music” (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; U.S.)

“Much Ado About Nothing” (William Shakespeare; England)

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ernest Hemingway; U.S.)

“East of Eden” (John Steinbeck; U.S.)

“JFK” (Will Holt and Tom Sawyer; U.S.)

“West Side Story” (Arthur Laurents; U.S.)

“The Great Gatsby” (F. Scott Fitzgerald; U.S.)

“Me and My Girl” (Noel Gay, Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose; England)

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” (Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde; Ireland)

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.