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Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Fans make troupe phenomenon it is
Takarazuka Revue Co., Japan's all-female musical troupe, is a love-it or hate-it theatrical landmark.
Some just can't take the heavy makeup and sugary plot lines. But enthusiasts, mostly women, wholeheartedly devote their money, time and energy to the troupe just like teen groupies chasing pop idols.
Fans make daily visits to either the theater in the city of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, or the venue in Tokyo to glimpse their favorite stars, watch the same play dozens of times during monthlong runs, and collect DVDs and photos at specialist shops.
For almost a century, Takarazuka entertainers have wowed their fans with their gaiety and established a unique theater culture.
Following are questions and answers about the troupe:
What is Takarazuka and when was it established?
Takarazuka, whose members are limited to unmarried women, is a musical theatrical troupe made up of five divisions — Flower, Moon, Snow, Star and Cosmos. Members play either male or female roles.
In any performance, the main character is always male, and the woman playing him is typically more popular than the actresses in female roles.
Between 2002 and 2007, the two Takarazuka theaters together sold some 2 million tickets a year, averaging a 95 percent attendance rate.
The group was established in 1913 by Ichizo Kobayashi, founder of Hankyu Corp., a major railway in the Kansai region, as a girl's operetta group to get more people to ride Hankyu trains.
Kobayashi believed that if he could turn the city of Takarazuka, a small hot-springs resort at the far end of the railway, into an entertainment destination, it would become a passenger draw.
The first Takarazuka performance was held in 1914 and within a few years several troupes were touring Japan's major cities. Theaters were built for them in Takarazuka in 1924 and in Tokyo in 1934.
Who are the core fans?
Females make up 90 percent to 95 percent of the audience, according to an official at Takarazuka Revue Co. who asked not to be named. He said most fans are in their 40s and 50s.
Some take in the same play numerous times a month and become "unofficial fan club" members devoted to a specific star. The unofficial fan clubs at times have thousands of members who adhere to strict self-imposed rules.
For instance, they are instructed to wait in orderly lines to glimpse the stars when they come in and out of theaters. Fans in the front row squat for those in the back row, and they are not allowed to shout, touch the stars or demonstrate any "bad manners."
Executives of fan clubs — mostly longtime fans — even become attendants of the stars, cooking "bento" boxed meals for them and chauffeuring them to and from theaters.
Some of the fans include well-known figures.
The late Osamu Tezuka, a comic writer and the author of "Astro Boy," was a big Takarazuka fan. Born in Osaka, he lived in Takarazuka when he was a child.
Tezuka's comic book "Ribon no Kishi" ("Princess Knight") had a Takarazuka spin. The story evolves around Princess Sapphire, who disguises herself as a prince to inherit the throne and struggles against a duke who is the next in line.
Why is it so popular?
Some point out Takarazuka's gaiety, the popularity of actresses, especially those playing the male roles, and the simple romantic plots.
But Tatsuya Kusaba, a researcher of Takarazuka's history, says the biggest attraction is the sense of closeness the fans have with the actresses
"Unlike other celebrities in the entertainment business, fans can hand letters, shake hands with actresses and watch them walk out of the theater every time after a performance," Kusaba said.
In the old days, he said, fans used to be referred to as "friends" of actresses.
Fans also develop the feeling that they are fostering their favorite performer as she climbs to the top and stardom.
Is Takarazuka's popularity linked to sexism?
Some academics say yes.
Leonie Stickland writes in his book "Gender Gymnastics: Performing and Consuming Japan's Takarazuka Revue" that the popularity of Takarazuka reflects the fact that women in Japan are still considered inferior to men.
"So long as Japanese society continues to offer women fewer opportunities for self-determination than it offers men . . . Takarazuka will surely remain a popular medium which caters to the otherwise unfulfilled dreams of countless women, whether as performers or as fans, by affording them the chance vicariously to participate in a wider world not dependent upon their own sex, gender or ethnicity," writes Stickland, an associate lecturer on Asian studies at the University of Western Australia.
Stickland further states that the lesser popularity of female-role stars among fans "derives from the latter's displeasure at being reminded of society's low estimation of their own worth, and of the wiles to which women are expected to resort in order to flatter and serve others."
Is it true that what Takarazuka members can say in public is strictly controlled?
Yes. They are subject to the tacit "Violet Code." Members must not reveal their real name or age, or talk about their romances.
The Takarazuka official declined to comment on the code's existence but admitted senior ranks traditionally hand down to their juniors this sense of discipline.
"Seniors often tell their juniors that they should not do anything that goes against the Takarazuka motto of being pure, righteous and beautiful," he said.
Were there ever any male members?
Yes. About 25 male members were recruited into the troupe from 1946 to 1950. Although they worked hard, they never went on stage due to strong opposition from female members and fans. In 1954, the last of the male members transferred to other theatrical groups and that was the end of it.
How does one join the troupe?
The only way to become a member is to join the two-year Takarazuka Music School, which is dedicated solely to grooming future members. Girls aged 15 to 18 who are either in junior high or high school can take the entrance exam.
Hopefuls must also pass interviews and singing and dancing tests. Many go to cram schools, mostly run by former troupe members, specifically for the Takarazuka exams.
In April, 40 girls were accepted into the troupe out of 1,106 who took the exam, or some 28 applicants for each opening. At its peak in 1994, there were about 48 applicants for each opening.
What happens after members leave Takarazuka?
Some continue pursuing careers as actresses and TV celebrities. Others simply marry and retire from the entertainment industry.
Well-known figures include the actresses Kaoru Yachigusa, Mao Daichi, Hitomi Kuroki, Yuki Amami and Miki Maya.
A very few have entered politics, including Chikage Ogi, former president of the Upper House who also served as transport minister. Now retired from politics, she was the top Takarazuka star playing a girl's part in the 1950s.
Miyuki Hatoyama, whose husband, Yukio, is president of the Democratic Party of Japan, was in the Takarazuka troupe. If her husband's party wins the upcoming general election, she is almost certain to become Japan's first lady.