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Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

What's between sex and gender?

Exploring the significance of the female imitating the male in Japan's flamboyant women-only Takarazuka Review


GENDER GYMNASTICS: Performing and Consuming Japan's Takarazuka Revue, by Leonie R. Stickland. Melbourne, Australia: Trans Pacific Press, 2008, 282 pp., with five plates (I through V). A$49.95 (cloth)

The Takarazuka Revue is one of the several entertainment anomalies of Japan. It is an all-female presentation, one that — in the words of the author of this interesting account — "consists of a large stage, numerous cast members, bright lights, huge sets, colorful costumes and spot-lit stars."

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It is also a spectacle in which "gender mimicry is the very essence of the performance on each and every occasion." The all-female cast is divided into two major roles. The otokoyaku is, as the name suggests, the female who imitates the male. The musumeyaku is the female who imitates the female.

Since girls and women constitute at least 90 percent of the Takarazuka audience, their major interest is in the otokoyaku. She has been called the "ideal male" because of her innate understanding of the problems of being female. But she is also an "ideal female" as well, since she has managed, in this male world of modern Japan, to rise to the top of her profession.

There is also the pronounced difference between what we mean by "sex," and what we mean by "gender." Sex is simply how we are built — men and women are identified by their genitalia. Gender is everything else, and its various roles can be characterized as "cultural expectations of behavior appropriate for members of each sex."

Gender then is not determined by anatomy. Rather it is a social creation. It has been called an "act" that is endlessly rehearsed according to a "script" resulting in a composite picture, shared by society in general, of how persons of a particular gender should look, sound and behave.

Thus, "acting like a woman" is literally that. It is a skill that must be taught, learned, and continually repeated.

Entertainments such as kabuki with its male females and the Takarazuka with its female males make the social arbitration of gender apparent. Indeed, the author of this study states that her purpose in writing it is to "explore the significance of gender in the Takarazuka Revue, in relations to the broad social context in which it is situated."

Since the Revue is, in addition to being anthropological material, also a big business, bringing in a substantial profit, its headquarters is always alert to anything that might disturb a largely complaisant audience. The original motto, back in 1914 when this entertainment first debuted, was "purity, righteousness and beauty," and this has long remained an ideal.

Thus, the possibility of any actual love-making among all the simulated love-making on the Takarazuka stage is ignored. Indeed, as the author states: "I posit that so strongly entrenched is homophobia, even among many fans, that an 'out' lesbian would find herself ostracized because of her flagrant transgression of the purely-righteously- beautifully motto."

Though the fans allow the male impersonators to marry, considering this consistent with the fantasies encouraged by the policies by Takarazuka headquarters, if any cast member then attempted to nurse a resulting child, a huge drop in popularity might ensue — the idea of a lactating otokoyaku would, according to one interviewed fan, "be like destroying the dream."

And it is this dream of another, better world that accounts for the continuing popularity of the Takarazuka Revue. This enthusiasm grows into something like a frenzy during the finales of each and every production where the stars parade in front of their seething mass of fans. These come prepared with bouquets of flowers and boxes of candy, that are now offered to their idols. During one of my few forays into Takarazuka-land I was once almost brained by a tossed teddy bear.

This innocent orgy of adulation (so necessary that even musicals imported from abroad, "West Side Story" for example, must be rewritten to include a star-studded procession) marks, in several senses, the climax of the entertainment.

The frenzy in the stalls is occasioned by the fantasy romance on the stage. The love shown by the girls and women in the audience is platonic and directed toward the imagined male gender of the player, and not her anatomical sex. One can only wonder, however, at the actual state of relations between the sexes that would make such adulation so attractive.

In her book, Leonie Stickland, who has been with the troupe for nearly 40 years (as a fan, a would-be performer, a translator, a voice-actor, and now a researcher), gives a near anthropological account of this singular entertainment. In so doing she answers all the questions you may have had about the performances, as well as realizes her intention to explore the significance of gender in the Takarazuka production.



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