Performing Gender in Modern Japan: The Takarazuka Revue

Hello! My name is Elizabeth Denny and I am a rising senior at the College, majoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) with a concentration in Japanese language and culture.  I’ve been studying the Japanese language since I was fourteen, and as I’ve delved deeper into my cultural studies work here at William & Mary, I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to several courses that combined my interest in feminist scholarship with my love of pop culture. This summer research brings together those academic threads in what I hope will be a very challenging and rewarding final product, my honors thesis on the Takarazuka Revue (Takarazuka kagekidan).

The Takarazuka Revue is an all-female theater troupe based in Takarazuka City, Japan, which has achieved enormous popularity since its founding in 1913. Its most popular productions draw millions of viewers, up to 90% of whom are female, and many of its actresses graduate to successful careers on the mainstream Japanese screen or stage. The draw of these productions are the Revue’s otokoyaku, or “man actors” – women who dress in drag and undergo specialized training to play male parts, and who carry this androgynous persona offstage into their everyday lives in a way that incites fervid dedication from their female fans.

 

Otokoyaku Kei Aran leads a 2006 production of Berusairu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles).

 

Japan is, broadly speaking, a socially conservative nation with a complicated history of defined gender dynamics, and it affords adult women relatively few professional opportunities. That the Takarazuka Revue and its actresses have achieved not only broad acceptance but broad devotion from the public in such a social atmosphere tells us many interesting things about contemporary gender relations in Japan. So too can we also learn from the Revue’s literal performances of “maleness” and “femaleness” as embodied by their gender-bending actresses. What kind of identity does the otokoyaku construct for herself onstage, and how does it contrast to her counterpart, the musumeyaku or “girl actor,” whose exaggerated femininity is meant to enhance the otokoyaku’s masculinity? What is the intense appeal of these characters to their female fans?

 

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Otokoyaku Jun Sena and musumeyaku Kanami Ayano in a 2007 production of Dal Lake no Koi (Love at Dal Lake).

 

These, among many others, are the questions I want to ask. The Revue is part of a long tradition of performative gender in Asia, a tradition that includes artistic institutions as old and varied as Peking Opera and kabuki and noh theater. It is virtually unique, however, in its all-female casts and fan base, and I believe that these characteristics make it a rich source of social and cultural insight.

In my thesis, I will explore the identity of the contemporary Takarazuka Revue, currently celebrating its centennial, and what that identity means to the women who follow it so devoutly, as well as to Japan as a whole. I will illustrate this through textual analysis of several of the Revue’s most popular productions, including its adaptations of the popular Austrian musical Elisabeth and its series of musicals based on Ikedo Riyoko’s revolutionary manga The Rose of Versailles. Along the way, I will trace its history and influences along the myriad paths of modernity, sexuality, pop culture, and performing arts in both the Western and Eastern tradition. My research will take me to the troupe’s home base this summer in the Kansai region of Japan, where I will spend eight weeks researching and visiting the theater, and I will produce original English translations of several signature Takarazuka productions. Above all else, I hope to contribute to a limited body of English-language scholarship on this fascinating institution, and encourage other scholars to see its enormous potential in the fields of feminist, theatrical, and cultural scholarship.