A History of Takarazuka Revue Influences in Animeby ZeroReq011,
Shall I tell a modern tale of girls and a stage? Curtains unraveled to their far reaches, a grand staircase positioned in the back, the spotlight basks on two figures: a sweeping-dress maiden played by a woman, and an epaulettes-coat hero played by another woman. Both are from the Takarazuka Revue. The Takarazuka Revue is a popular Japanese all-female theater group founded in the early 20th century. Its theatrical adaptation of Rose of Versailles and other plays have been profoundly influential on the aesthetics and narratives of Japanese shoujo stories, those iconic settings of dress-wearing feminine women and crossdressing-masculine women cavorting gaily, gloriously, tenderly, and tragically on a Western-themed setting. Look no further than Revolutionary Girl Utena, Revue Starlight, and the recent Kageki Shoujo!! as proof of the Revue's impact on anime and manga.
But alongside the melodramatic fantasies offered by the all-female Revue to their mainly female fanbase exists drama in the backstage and the audience. The hyper-competitive environment the Revue fosters and the specific physiological qualities the Revue demands take unhealthy tolls upon its actresses. The seemingly progressive image of an all-women stage and women playing both male and female roles in romantic plots hits the brick wall of tradition and institution, of men who once and still run the show and society.
Ichizo Kobayashi and his Takarazuka Revue
It is the post-Meiji Restoration period in the Taisho era where we settle on Ichizo Kobayashi, an elite man of his time. In the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration which restored the Japanese Emperor as Japan's supreme head of state – a reaction to the Tokugawa shogunate's capitulation to the West's demands to open Japan's borders – a ravenous appetite possessed Japan's ruling male elite to adopt anything and everything Western. From tech and arms to clothes and customs, the spirit behind this initial voracious hunger was to equalize Japan's standing with the West via modernization. Gradually though, a new idea took hold of this elite: Japan did not need to be so indiscriminate with its Western learning. To these elites, Japanese traditions were already superior in many ways, though those ways could be enhanced with select Western innovations. For many of them, it was simply the West's industry, military, and science that were valuable enough to copy. For Kobayashi, the founder of the Takarazuka Revue, it was also Western theater.
Industry tycoon, theater lover, and propagandist official for the Imperial Japanese government during World War II, Kobayashi established the Takarazuka Revue for three reasons: (1) to make money and promote his businesses in the city of Takarazuka by drawing on popular Western music and dance trends; (2) to make the aspects of Western theater he loved, in contrast to the overly insular Kabuki theater world, accessible to everyone as wholesome mainstream family entertainment; (3) to propagate his traditionalist-nationalistic ideas about female gender norms through the vehicle of mainstream theater.
Japan's Takarazuka Revue is so famous for its peculiarity to star an all-female acting core with crossdressers, compared to older all-male theater traditions, that you might be misled into believing Kobayashi had feminist leanings. One of the older theaters, Kabuki, had its beginnings originally in female participation. The Confucian-influenced Tokugawa government later banned women from Kabuki and other theaters for violating public gender norms through their performances, which were perceived to be sensual. Stripped of its female performers, Kabuki survived on its male ones, many of whom decided to crossdress and play women roles. It wouldn't be until the Revue that Japanese women were allowed to return to the public stage as respectable actresses, and not only as some stars among male ones. They, the officially named Takarasienne actresses, were the only acting stars of this specific Takarazuka Revue theater. The Takarasiennes were divided into the musumeyaku, the maidenly feminine roles, and the otokoyaku, the crossdressing masculine roles. Japanese culture at the Takarazuka Revue's founding and even up to this day has clear lines for what counts as feminine and masculine, and Kobayashi's reasoning behind establishing the otokoyaku was not one of challenging those assumptions. To him, theater was not meant to provide individually liberating experiences for his Takarasienne. Instead, they were socially reifying exercises to teach them how to properly conform to traditional female gender norms carried over from Confucian-influenced Tokugawa times to post-Meiji Restoration ones. They were expected to become good wives and mothers for the Japanese nation.
Kobayashi was critical of the feminist thinking that was imported to Japan from the West, of the Western-dressed moga women of Taisho enjoying themselves in public without a care for traditional social responsibilities. So the Takarazuka Revue was partially conceived as a way to moderate what aspects of Western culture were socially acceptable for Japanese girls to adopt while educating them to their eventual social duties as Japanese wives and mothers once they come of age. Kobayashi saw, particularly in otokoyaku roles, the perfect kind of training for educating his yet-unmarried actresses in what men would want and expect of their women. He established the Takarazuka Music School as an actress pipeline to the Revue. Through it, he intended not only to train his Takarasienne in Japanese and Western performing arts, but also to instruct them in homemaking abilities that would make them more attractive to men. He barred them as a matter of policy from performing at the Revue once they tied the knot with a man, a policy that still stands long after Kobayashi's passing.
Nobuko Yoshiya and Class S
Popular during the days of Taisho and the Takarazuka Revue – and profoundly influential on Revue productions and shoujo stories even now – is the Class S genre pioneered by Nobuko Yoshiya. Class S was an early form of girls' love story centered around the close bonds of girls in closed school settings. Concerning the question of how "close" girls were in different tales, Class S has notoriously offered the option of narrative ambiguity. Even if his push for an all-female theater troupe was an atypical endeavor, Ichizo Kobayashi's traditionalist attitude towards women as wives and mothers was typical of Japanese society at the time. Kobayashi never intended to encourage girls to fall in love with other girls over men, but Class S elements nonetheless pervaded the Revue's productions. It bled through in the romances the Revue puts on and the actresses it exclusively stars, and in Kobayashi's understanding of the Revue as a kind of school and the Takarasienne its all-female student body. Class S stories in the Revue and elsewhere were well-received among female fans, and social critics tended to overlook Class S elements more because of their employed vagueness on the question of female sexuality.
The plausible deniability of Class S to the female sexuality question wasn't necessarily a move of cynical profit on Yoshiya's part, even if you could argue otherwise for many subsequent writers. Yoshiya was a feminist and lesbian who began her writing career with stories about girls in school falling for other girls before experiencing the wrenching but normative outcome of such love being unrequited. Living in a time when men like Kobayashi were in power, Yoshiya faced the challenge of how to write affirmative stories of girls love that drew upon her lesbian sexuality without facing severe backlash for it.
The commercially successful answer Yoshiya ended up on which formed the basis of Class S (and yuri as a whole, more of which can be read about in this article) was to write about intimate relationships between school girls which could include subtle suggestions but otherwise excluded explicit mentions of lesbian romance and sexuality. Yoshiya's formulation of Class S drew on trending Western sexological positions. Such positions revised (but didn't overturn) Japanese female gender norms by re-characterizing female friendships as healthy developments that should be encouraged while reframing lesbianism as natural phases among girls that they albeit should grow out of following adolescence. Through Class S, closeted Japanese lesbians could find some validation in the queer subtext. Japanese social critics overlooked Class S's queerness more often because of its ambiguous existence in the overt text, and Japanese women generally appreciated the idea in Class S of strong and lasting (if only platonic) female connections.
The Reality and Fantasy of the Takarazuka Revue
Despite Ichizo Kobayashi's intentions to make the Takarazuka Revue an institution of modern Western accoutrement but traditional Japanese spirit – the ideal institution to train wives and mothers as well as entertain families and the masses – the very nature of an all-girls theater that includes actresses who play male roles, as well as its birth at a time when Class S stories were trending, complicated the reality of his grand vision. Some of the Revue cast chafed at being forced to act like Kobayashi's ideal women off-stage, with some Takarasienne refusing to get married to continue their acting careers in the Revue. While some otokoyaku stress that their masculine roles are separate from how girly they are normally, other otokoyaku lead less traditionally feminine lives outside of performances by choice. The policy of marriage leading to permanent severance from the Revue is still in effect, though in the years following Kobayashi's death, the Takarazuka Music School has phased out the more direct homemaker facets of its curriculum.
The Takarazuka Revue's currently majority female audience engage with its actresses (and particularly its otokoyaku) less like models for how women of society should be for men, and more like fantasies by which they can escape from their society run by men. Otokoyaku do not so much mirror actual men in their form and acting as they project the best aspects of masculinity onto their female fans. Otokoyaku share similarities with the idealized male protagonists of many shoujo stories, ones that are brave and confident but also kind and sensitive. Female viewers enjoy through the otokoyaku a masculinity that is pure and chivalric and lacks those sullying qualities of aggression and oppressive impulses to dominate that too many real men possess. Takarasienne are also required to keep up disciplined physiques that sell the Revue's specific fantasies, which for the otokoyaku include tall statures and long legs in addition to slim figures and short hair. Takarasienne in general have body images they are expected to maintain, and becoming otokoyaku for actresses is impossible unless they lucked out on height genes.
Even having strayed from Kobayashi's vision of female duty, the Takarazuka Revue's promotion of escapist fantasy has been criticized for stopping short of really challenging the patriarchal and conservative status quo. The female majority audience escape into the Revue to consume images of the idealized otokoyaku man – simultaneously action-oriented as well as emotively caring – again and again without being inspired to demand the same of the actual men of the society they are escaping from. The Revue's productions don't help in this matter, as while the fans are majority female and the Takarasienne entirely so, the Revue's stage play scripts and corporate management boards have been historically dominated by men, ghosts of Kobayashi's influence who capitalize on consumable fantasies for profit.
Princess Knight, The Rose of Versailles, and the Top Star System
The first major influences of the Takarazuka Revue on shoujo manga and anime come from no less than Osamu Tezuka and Princess Knight. With the success of his prior works aimed at boys, Tezuka was asked to write manga and anime for girls in his more narrative-focused style. Shoujo in both mediums up until then was dominated by short gags and edification lessons, so for inspiration on how to write for girls, he drew from his memories watching the Revue with his mother. Princess Knight is the story of the heroine Sapphire, who is technically a girl and a princess but presents herself as a boy and a prince due to magical and political circumstances. She crossdresses as a man and performs idealized aspects of masculinity in public, much like how an otokoyaku dresses and performs on stage.
Riyoko Ikeda's The Rose of Versailles seemed tailor-made for the Takarazuka Revue to leverage the strengths and appeal of its musumeyaku and otokoyaku, channeling them through the female characters of the maidenly privileged feminine Marie Antoinette and the gallant crossdressing masculine Oscar, both of whom participate in events leading up to the French Revolution. The explosive popularity of the Revue's adaptation and the otokoyaku who played Oscar and other male roles secured the Revue and its otokoyaku their places as iconic fixtures of Japanese mainstream entertainment culture as well as in shoujo manga and anime.
The current iteration of the Takarazuka Revue's Top Star System was formulated sometime after its initial performances of The Rose of Versailles. The Takarasienne's otokoyaku, the most visible and popular actresses, compete to be selected as Top Stars. The Revue currently consists of five troupes, and the otokoyaku Top Stars become their most visible leaders, starring as the male leads of every production these troupes performs. The musumeyaku participate in a similar system called the Top Musumeyaku. Such systems, instituted by the male production and corporate directors of the Revue, have drawn criticism for promoting an atmosphere of toxic competitiveness between actresses.
Revue Starlight, Kageki Shoujo!!, and Revolutionary Girl Utena
Revue Starlight, Kageki Shoujo!!, and Revolutionary Girl Utena are three more recent anime that, to varying degrees, incorporate, celebrate, and comment on the history, organization, and aesthetics of the Tarkarazuka Revue. Revue Starlight and Kageki Shoujo!!'s stories focus on overviews of and criticisms against the exacting and competitive nature of the Revue – though Kageki Shoujo!! also takes shots at examples of male privilege and abuse in Japanese society. Utena's narrative not so much offers direct commentary on the Revue's operations as it attacks the patriarchal oppressive gender norms still undergirding the Revue, and by extension, society.
Revue Starlight is the story of Karen Aijo, Hikari Kagura, and the other girls of her year in their Takarazuka Music School-like academy, all of whom struggle in their otokoyaku-inspired epaulette coats for and under the Top Star system. Negotiating through magical realism and metaphor, Karen fights to become a Top Star duo with her childhood friend Hikari. She encourages her defeated classmates to continue striving for their dreams, an effort that runs counter to the magic-metaphor system that strips girls of their motivational shine to fuel a singular Top Star's upward climb. The anime keeps the Class S elements to an ambiguous level, placing Karen and Hikari's relationship and others in a light that could be seen as pure wholesome romance while portraying classmate Mahiro Tsuyuzaki's unrequited crush towards Karen as sensual, creepy, and unhinged before disappearing right after a resolved internal conflict.
Kageki Shoujo!! Is the story of graduated J-pop idol Ai Narata and Kabuki reject student Sarasa Watanabe becoming great friends and pursuing dreams in a not-Takarazuka Music School. The anime focuses on the routines and challenges of Takarazuka trainees as they learn to develop the necessary skills and expected posture of the Takarasienne-esque roles they are aiming for, with Sarasa set on becoming an otokoyaku and Ai, a musumeyaku. In addition, Ai and Sarasa also have to juggle their school lives with their traumatic past ones, resurfaced memories of abuse by men in Ai's case and dismissal by systems that privilege them in Sarasa's. The anime keeps its Class S elements to an explicitly platonic level, as Sarasa is revealed to have a boyfriend outside of the school and classmate Kaoru Hoshino is shown to have harbored positive romantic feelings for a boy from her days before joining it.
The Utena anime is a comprehensive criticism epic of the conservative patriarchal forces still underlying the Takarazuka Revue, and is either a complete subversion of Class S or a realized fulfillment of the genre's promise. Utena comes in both a TV series and a movie, with separate but similar storylines. In the broad strokes of both, Utena revolves around the tomboyish-acting otokoyaku-inspired Utena Tenjou and the sweepingly-dressed musumeyaku-inspired Anthy Himemiya in their prison-of-a-school. Utena enters school and performs varying degrees of masculinity in emulation of a boy she's romantically interested in and searches for, in reference to Ichizo Kobayashi's original designs for otokoyaku.
Utena encounters Anthy, who's being fought over as a prize and is abused and exploited by boys and girls performing domineering masculinity in a competition reminiscent of the Top Star System. Utena stumbles into the contest and fights, though out of concern for Anthy instead of a desire to own and use her. A boy is later revealed to be the headmaster of the school, the organizer of the competition, and one of Anthy's worst abusers. Utena questions her interest in continuing to settle for love with a specific boy as her own interest in Anthy grows beyond mere concern and gets in the way of her initial romantic quest. The movie Adolescence of Utena makes that interest unambiguously queer as the two share a kiss while naked and driving off from the classes of their adolescence into adulthood.
The straight love was a fanciful teenage phase, and the queer relationship was what evolved out of it.
The Takarazuka Revue's history and organization are as complicated as its productions are emotive and well-loved. They have left a remarkable footprint on anime and manga, as celebrations of, commentaries on, and conversations with the Revue's theater and values. More than just being a weird old niche of Japanese society, it is a living mainstream institution that continues, to this day, to inspire new stories based on it.
Social Scientist & History Buff. Dabbles in Creative Writing & Anime Criticism. Consider following him at @zeroreq011
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