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Takarazuka is a female-only theater school and performance troupe based in the city of Takarazuka, Japan. The form specializes in Broadway-like musicals with emphasis on song and dance. The plays feature male and female characters, despite all actors being female. Japanese fans of the troupe are almost exclusively female, and stars are treated like Hollywood celebrities.
In 1913, a Japanese railroad tycoon named Ichizo Kobayashi founded the theater school to boost tourism to the area. Rejecting the styles of Kabuki, Japan’s most prominent theater, Kobayashi decided to focus on musicals and love stories. As it was not socially acceptable for unmarried women to have romantic scenes with male actors, the troupe was made exclusively female to appeal to conservative audiences.
Training for Takarazuka is disciplined and exclusive. Each year, about 50 young girls are selected for the academy out of thousands of applicants. The first few years of training involve tradition-specific menial tasks, like scrubbing floors and cleaning mirrors. These tasks are done with extreme care and are micro-managed by older students. After the first year, students are separated into otokoyaku and musumeyaku (male and female) training categories.
Many factors like height, looks and vocal range determine which actress, or Takarasienne, performs male or female parts. Those trained to play male parts usually cut off their hair, deepen their voices, and speak in male pronouns when referring to themselves. Top star otokoyaku generally have the biggest fan followings. The male characters in Takarazuka performances are usually romantic, charming and loyal. Some cultural studies suggest that the female fans that idolize otoyoaku are attracted to this fantasy or hero version of men.
While some plays used by Takarazuka are drawn from traditional Japanese folktales and legends, Western musicals like Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma are extremely popular. The cast may include dozens of extras and dancers, comprised of lower-level Takarasiennes or students. The production values of the main stage plays are usually enormous, featuring elaborate sets and costumes. Plays will generally conclude with extravagant dance numbers, often including stage-length kick lines.
One interesting side to Takarazuka productions is their occasional exploration of gender roles. Because the otokoyaku are generally made to look as androgynous as possible, plays are frequently based around men dressing as women or women dressing as men. One of the most popular plays performed by the company is The Rose of Versailles in which a girl raised as a boy by her soldier father is constantly torn between the freedom of her male existence and the desires of her female self. Experts speculate that the hero of this play is attractive to fans as she portrays “safe” androgyny by having male characteristics, but no roughness and a deep understanding of women.
Takarazuka is closely followed by serious fans, and many fan clubs follow the star’s lives closely. Productions take place year round in the home city of the theater, as well as in a new theater in Tokyo, Japan. If you are visiting the country, a performance of this highly popular theater is well worth the ticket price.
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