Haruno Sumire in a poster for Takarazuka's "La Esperanza"
magine the perfect Japanese woman. Her svelte figure draped in a suit, her short hair ruffled by the breeze as she strolls confidently down the street, gaze defiant.
Not what you had in mind?
Perhaps you're not aware the woman is a "Takarizienne," a member of the all-female Takarazuka, an 86-year-old theater troupe that performs lavish musicals cross-country and draws an annual attendance of 2.5 million.
In 1914, railway magnate Ichizo Kobayashi founded the Takarazuka ("treasure mound") Revue to attract visitors to his resort. His goal was to present actresses that were "more suave, more affectionate, more courageous, more charming, more handsome, and more fascinating than a real man," according to the official website.
Takarazuka's ninety-five percent female audience thrills to see its favorite stars in shows like "West Side Story," and "Phantom." The women who portray the males are otokoyaku (literally "male role") and those playing female parts are musumeyaku (literally "daughter role").
"I wish that Japanese men could be as passionate as the otokoyaku," says one female fan. "The otokoyaku are so much cooler and more manly," another adds.
One visitor to Japan Zone writes that the popular Revue "must touch something deep in the [female] Japanese psyche. In Japan's male-dominated society... the otokoyaku represent a vicarious way for young women to live out fantasies of strength and power."
Since its inception, Kobayashi intended the Takarazuka training school to be a principled place, combating those who considered theater to be an indecent profession for women. Described by Arts and Culture as "a hybrid of Julliard and a military academy," the daily routine of the 400 15-to-18 year-old students begins with two hours of cleaning and ends in classes for dance, choral singing, Japanese music, and the art of the tea ceremony.
Receiving thousands of applications annually, but accepting only 40 to 50 new students, the Takarazuka school is as competitive as any Japanese institution. Students graduate only after completing two years of training. Afterwards, they're sent to one of the Revue's five troupes: Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, or Cosmos.
Each Takarazuka troupe specializes in an area of performance. The Flower Troupe (Hana) is famous for its otokoyaku; the Moon Troupe (Tsuki) is home to the younger performers and strong vocalists. The Snow Troupe (Yuki) is known for its performances of traditional Japanese drama, and the Star (Hoshi) and Cosmos (Sora) Troupes are more experimental. Recently, Broadway's Frank Wildhorn composed the musical score for the Cosmos' 2006 season.
The Takarazuka Grand Theatre's next offering will be Cosmos' "Valencia Passion," set during the political unrest between Napoleonic France and Spain. In the Revue's Tokyo theatre, audiences can watch the Snow Troupe in "Elisabeth," a musical romanticization of Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) von Wittelsbach of Austro-Hungary.
Says that same Japan Zone visitor, "Takarazuka has legions of loyal fans, not all in Japan, and certainly seems to provide a form of entertainment that is very important to a lot of people. It might just be your cup of tea."