The Takarazuka Revue is a 100-year-old entertainment phenomenon in Japan. Its spectacular stage musicals attract almost two million fans each year to the two main theatres – one in Tokyo and one in Takarazuka, the town in which the troupe was founded. The unique characteristic of this troupe is that all the parts are played by women, with the actresses being divided into “otokoyaku” (male role) and “musumeyaku” (daughter’s role). Even though no men are allowed onstage, there are plenty of men behind the scenes, working as writers, directors, choreographers, designers or as members of the orchestra.
Every year, thousands of young women audition to join the troupe, out of which only 40 or 50 are accepted. The lucky chosen ones are then required to attend the Takarazuka Music School for two years, where they undergo rigorous training in music, dance and acting. The Revue has acted as a launchpad for many of Japan’s most famous actresses.
The musical performances are sometimes drawn from traditional Japanese stories and folklore (or even manga), but are more often adapted from western musicals, complete with chorus lines and grand finales reminiscent of Broadway or Las Vegas revues.
Not only are all the cast members women, but it’s estimated that as many as 90% of the fans are also women. A lot has been written as to why that is, with author Jennifer Robertson examining the lesbian overtones which she says are present in every production, “simply by virtue of the fact that women play every role.” In fact, in the decade after the troupe was created in 1914, many people were scandalised when women began writing love letters to their favorite otokoyakus. Robertson’s theory is that “many [women] are attracted to the Takarazuka otokoyaku because she represents an exemplary female who can negotiate successfully both genders and their attendant roles and domains.”
Recently attendance has begun to stagnate, so the troupe is looking to raise its profile abroad; the theory being that the more people in other asian countries are exposed to Takarazuka, the more foreign tourists will be drawn to their theatres in Japan. Next month, a troupe will perform in Taiwan.
The video above is the complete 2007 Takarazuka production of Elisabeth, Ai to Shi no Rondo (Part 1).