Takarazuka’s Women-Presenting-as-Men Jolts Me When…

I am used to seeing women performing in tuxedos. I’ve seen it in American media (example: Janelle MonĂ¡e), 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.

On the left, we see the face and the back of a standing blond woman wearing a fancy white 30s style dress, on the right
 we see a standing woman presenting as a man wearing a black tuxedo, and in the bottom center we see a seated woman presenting as a man wearing a white tuxedo with a black shirt
.  All of them are wearing heavy, dark eye-makeup. The English words 'The Lost Glory' are prominently featured.

Is it just me, or is this Takarazuka poster a bit creepy? I think the creepiness is due to their artificial-looking faces, not the tuxedos.

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?

In the top-right corner there is a large Takarazuka performer dressed as a samurai from the 1600s riding a big black horse with a long lance, while in the lower-left corner there is a Takarazuka performer dressed as another man from the period with a flute, and a woman from the period with a sword on her shoulder.

A poster for the show “Ichimuan Fuuryuuki Maeda Keiji / My Dream TAKARAZUKA” (2014)

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.


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Takarazuka: Passionate, Yet Non-Sexual

I love this poster for Takarazuka’s Flower Troupe’s “The Last Tycoon”. It is set in the 1930s! It features two people in some kind of intimate relationship, it is clear that one is a very femme woman and the other is on the female-presenting-as-male spectrum, yet officially this is non-sexual and non-lesbian-romantic – which makes it not unlike my fantasy of an ephemeral evening.

So, I have written posts about a) the Takarazuka Revue and b) passionate aces in fiction. I have been leading up to something:

If I cannot get passionate aces in my fiction, I can settle for non-sexual displays of passion – and this is where Takarazuka comes in.

Takarazuka makes a point about *not* being about sexuality, and from a certain angle, not even being about romance, yet being passionate most certainly is the point.

Takarazuka performers are required to be unmarried and not involved in any sexual/romantic relationships while they are working for Takarazuka. I do not know how strictly this rule is enforced, and there probably is somebody discreetly bending/breaking it. When I discuss this with fellow Americans, many assume that the performers must be involved in lots of lesbian activities/relationships (which must be true to some extent because, before we even get to the fact that theses are female performers who regularly act out romantic love with other female performers, when you have hundreds of women, quite a few of them are going to be pan/lesbian/bi based on sheer statistical chance). However, the Takarazuka Revue claims that this is not at all what it is about. And on top of that, being a Takarazuka performer requires a ton of time of energy, so I think that even if they were allowed to openly pursue sexual/romantic relationships, many would not because they need to pour so much of themselves into their work.

And pouring yourself into performing in the Takarazuka Revue because you love singing and dancing is a passionate act in itself.

So, we have here a) people doing something (singing and dancing and acting) with great passion b) people professing their passionate feelings for each other and sometimes other things (for example, singing passionately about how beautiful the flowers are) and c) none of it is intended to be sexual (unless it is required by the story) and d) when they declare romantic love, they do not *really* mean it romantically, because they are all women and not presenting as lesbians/queers.

To me, this feels like a burst non-sexual passion. It validates passion as I experience it.

That is not to say that Takarazuka is ace/aro-friendly. For example, the structure of the shows means that the stories often center around a heteronormative romantic relationship (even if the ‘heteronormative’ part is being subverted by the lack of male performers), and what they say often affirms heteronormativity (even if it is being subverted, again, by the lack of male performers).

Perhaps that is the true source of the appeal. In Takarazuka, the words say one thing (HETERONORMATIVY), yet the physical reality is saying something else (women expressing their SUPREME love for each other – and flowers too of course). This offers lots of room for interpretation, and everyone can find the interpretation they needs. Cis het women can get their fantasy ‘men’ (Takarazuka fans often claim that the Takarazuka’s otokoyaku are more appealing than men in real life), pan/lesbian/bi women can watch a woman dressed as a man have a passionate romance with a very femme woman, genderqueer people can watch people who are messing with the gender binary, and I, an ace, can watch people expressing passionate love, knowing that this is officially non-sexual and that the romance bit is not really romance. In short, people of different genders/sexualities can find themselves in the ambiguity of Takarazuka.


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Takarazuka for the Women

A poster for “The Rose of Versailles: Oscar Version” (2014)

In Osaka, I met a Japanese man who is a fan of the Takarazuka Revue. I commented that the vast majority of fans are women, and a fellow American asked what the Takarazuka Revue is. I explained that all of the performers are young women, and she (the American) was surprised that it mainly appeals to women. I talked about how, since all of the performers are female, all male characters are played by female performers, and my fellow American said she still did not understand why it does not have a large male audience.

An aside: to observe the gender ratios in Takarazuka audiences, just look at the bathrooms on the first floor of the Takarazuka Grand Theater. The women’s bathroom is huge … it has about 50 toilets … and yet there are still epic lines at intermission. The men’s bathroom is quite small, yet I never see any lines outside it.

Now, I think the American’s line of thought was 1) all of the performers are young women 2) young women = sex for straight men 3) therefore men come to enjoy the ‘sexiness’ of the young women.

This goes back to this assumption built into our culture that a young woman’s raison d’etre is to supply sex to men. If I describe a show as consisting entirely of young male performers, people generally do not assume that the audience primarily consists of straight women who want ‘sexy’ entertainment (in fact, ignoring what entertainment women are interested in is also a feature of mainstream American culture).

However, as can be demonstrated by the composition of the audience, that is not how the Takarazuka revue works. I have no doubt that some Takarazuka fans are queer women, but I also have no doubt that many are straight women.

In Japanese theatre, actresses have traditionally been forbidden, and all female roles were played by male performers. That meant that female performers could not express themselves publicly, and that female audiences could not see people of their own gender in public performances.

Granted, there are exceptions – for example, geiko and maiko sometimes put on public performances (I went to one, and I saw a lot of women in the audience, though there were also plenty of men).

But in Takarazuka, not only can women see women express themselves, but they can see women express non-femininity. This is hard to come by in Japan, particular in the relatively conservative space in which Takarazuka Revue exists. Since the Takarazuka Revue is conservative, it is ‘safe’, and it does not demand the same level of boldness as, say, radical feminism.

In other words, women can watch women step out of rigid female gender roles, with society’s blessing, even if it is just for the duration of a song and dance. I think might be part of the Takarazuka Revue’s appeal.

I know this is part of Takarazuka’s appeal to me. I appreciate the relatively low level of male gaze. As far as other reasons it appeals to me … well, that would be a subject for another post.


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the person who associated CC0
with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring
rights to this work.