Thursday, July 10, 2014

Takarazuka Revue

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female musical theater group based in the city in which I live.  From the performers, to the costumes, to the plot and music, and not least of all, the audience and fan culture that exists around it all, it is a spectacular, superlative, unique gem of Japan.  Today was my first experience.

The programs change about once a month and are based on novels, operas, Japanese folklore, manga, musicals, movies, and so on.  Each is original.  Showtimes are at 11am-2pm and 3pm-6pm with a half-hour intermissions.   The first half is the narrative with some singing and dancing, and the second-half is a completely unrelated song and dance revue that more than rival the Ziegfeld follies.  Today I dozed intermittently in the first act, as the performers in beautiful kimonos performed a complicated piece about samurais and ninjas (confusing even to my Japanese friends who could understand the language).      They slashed their swords to sound effects and suffered in courtly love.  But I couldn't understand any of it.

At intermission I witnessed the audience pull out their bentos–bought and homemade lunches–and eat in the theater seats or in the surrounding lounges.  Everyone seemed to be eating rice balls, or enjoying small amounts of a variety of Japanese lunch foods.  I had expected to keep myself awake for another hour in the second half, but when the curtain rose, it was different world.

A mirror ball, sequins and feathers, a stage filled with lights like a carousel.  One song and dance routine after another with evermore increasingly fantastic costumes and company choreography.  Kick lines and headdresses galore.  By then end, a staircase stretched across the stage, sparkling with lights as each member of the company descended.  The stars wore huge feather plumes, and more and more sequins bedecking their slim tuxedos.

The productions itself was incredible.  The lighting, a live orchestra, trap doors in the stage for entrances and exits,  costumes and make-up, a bridge extending into the audience which the stars would step upon to loud applaus.

But even more imaginative to me is the culture around this phenomenon.  I wonder about the original conception.  It was created by the head of Hankyu Railway company Ichizo Kobayashi, in order to give people an incentive to use the railway to Takarazuka.  It's been said that the choice to only use women was a counterpart to the all-male Kabuki troupes.  If I were an entrepreneur concerned about the need for a railway line I wanted to create, would this be my solution?  Incredible.

I also wonder about the cultural sustainment and marketing and how this reflects Japanese culture.  Showtimes are during working hours, the audience is at least 90% female and of this, the vast majority are in their 40s or older.  The stars, most especially the male roles, are more than doted upon, with fan clubs that must write them postcards and wear colored scarves to show their support. There are posters, and program books, and cards, and much more with headshots of the stars filling the giftshops surrounding the theater.  Plenty to plaster a wall.  And as long a performer is with the company, they must remain single.  If they wish to get married, they must leave.

Some suggest that the fascination comes from lesbian undertones.  Others suggest that in a culture that is oppressive to women, there is an appeal in seeing another woman gain a position of power in a male role.  It is also interesting to me that the production quality and style is so akin to American Depression era movies and shows of immense grandeur which provided escapism from the reality of a difficult life.

It's incredible that something like this exists so close to home and that it is possible to get a ticket for only 2000 yen by waiting in line the day of the performance.  I'm not sure if I understand enough Japanese to fully get into the culture that has captured the hearts of so many, but I always enjoy a live performance.  Certainly lucky to have the initiating experience.

Poster for the show I saw today
(performed by the "Snow" Group)

Poster for the next show
(to be performed by the "Star" Group)

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