I am used to seeing women performing in tuxedos. I’ve seen it in American media (example: Janelle Monáe), I’ve seen it in Taiwanese media (example: Fong Fei Fei), and I have danced in a tuxedo in public myself. Heck, I have even seen Japanese women dance in tuxedos in San Francisco. So when I see Takarazuka performers in tuxedos, it seems totally natural to me.
Don’t get me wrong – I like the woman-in-tuxedo look, and it is one of the many aspects of Takarazuka which appeals to me. But it also feels … ordinary.
Though I have not seen any Takarazuka shows set in imperial China, my guess is that seeing Takarazuka performers dressed as men from imperial China would not jolt me either. Why not? Because Chinese opera has had women playing male roles since before Takarazuka existed.
I admit, I do not know about every Chinese opera tradition (there are many). But I have seen a Taiwanese opera in which all of the performers happened to be female, and when I saw Ming Hwa Yuan (one of the most famous Taiwanese opera troupes) perform, the male ‘handsomest man in the world’ lead was performed by a woman. Meng Xiaodong, a famous female Beijing opera singer, often played male roles. And Huangmei opera has the legendary Ivy Ling Po, who much like top Takarazuka stars, was considering more charming than ‘real men’.
So after seeing so many operas which show female performers dressed as men in imperial China, I doubt seeing it in Takarazuka would jolt me.
But when Takarazuka performers dress as men from pre-Meiji Japan?
The first time I saw a Takarazuka performer on stage in a kimono and hairstyle for men in historical Japan, my reaction was ‘Whoa’.
I have seen American women dressed as men from pre-Meiji Japan performing in English. But for some reason that does not count for me. Seeing Japanese women dress as men from pre-Meiji Japan and performing in Japanese seems like something else to me.
And watching Ichimuan Fuuryuuki Maeda Keiji also felt … different.
Unlike Chinese opera, Japanese performing arts have traditionally forbidden women from playing female roles, let alone male roles (note that there are exceptions to this – such as the geisha culture – but try to find a traditional kabuki performance with female performers, I dare you). So the fact that Takarazuka celebrates female performers is itself a break from this broader tradition, and going so far as to have female performers present as JAPANESE MEN …
I even have seen a Takarazuka performer perform a Noh dance on stage. That provided a stronger reaction than Ichimuan Fuuryuuki Maeda Keiji, since in the latter one eventually gets used to the fact that it is set in historical Japan, but maybe it is also because Noh has a strong tradition of no women performing in public.
So, in short, I am more shocked to see Takarazuka performers present as JAPANESE men than to see them present as European or American men.