What could be more romantic for a young Japanese lady than for a handsome prince to whisk them away on a romantic adventure? Well, when that prince is actually a woman, apparently.
Japan has a strong tradition of cross-dressing, from the female roles in Kabuki to the okama bars of Kabukicho, plus of course the elegant males of visual kei who with the help of huge amounts of makeup and far more photoshop are as convincing as any Thai ladyboy, plus more glamorous (though the illusion tends to shatter up close). But while josou – boys dressing as girls – tends to dominate, the opposite, referred to as dansou, is not uncommon. Prominent cosplayers are celebrated for pulling off the male look well, singers like Valshe look and sound like attractive pretty-boys – and then there is Takarazuka.
In front of audiences that are at least 98% female, the various troupes of the Takarazuka Kageki-dan are all female. Half of them play female roles, half male. These all-female troupes put on high-camp musicals that take their melodramatic love stories very, very seriously, and showcase some extremely powerful voices. In heavy makeup and often elaborate costumes – usually sparkling with many, many sequins – the girls tease their audiences with love stories and over their 101-year history have of course courted controversy with overt homoeroticism. The audience is certainly not filled with lesbians, but something about the masculine otoko-yaku being a woman, clean-cut and charming and understanding the feminine heart, is deeply attractive to the adoring female fans. The idea of young female students having a crush on an older girl at school is very common in Japanese media, and in some ways this is an extension of that mildly thrilling bit of transgression.
Interesting though the sociopolitics are, the performances themselves are very straightforward. Emotions are bombastic and direct, performances hammy and sets and costumes opulent. It’s romantic and overwrought and revels in that campy excess. In many ways the result is like a British pantomime, only less twee and more erotically-charged.
Love & Dream was somewhat atypical – rather than a single story, this revue was divided into a Disney tribute and then a kind of best-of compilation from Takarazuka’s long history. Dealing in grand, overwrought emotions, Disney material is somewhat ideal for Takarazuka, and it was big emotional numbers with the chance for the singer to belt like ‘Part of Your World’, ‘Go the Distance’ and of course ‘Let It Go’ that showcased some extremely impressive singing talents. Songs that allowed the otoko-yaku to show some personality worked well, too, like ‘Friend Like Me’, and it was fun hearing these familiar songs in Japanese – it’s somewhat gratifying that they call Hercules ‘Heracles’, like we should.
Some parts were misfires, but the pacing was brisk enough that the awkward parts quickly segued into something else. Whoever thought ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ needed a hard rock remix with guitar solo was misguided, and Mary Poppins numbers were a bit of a mess, needing much more elaborate choreography to work. But hey, when a dozen highly enthusiastic women come running out dressed as extremely camp pirates (to the theme from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’) and launch into ‘Under the Sea’, one really has to embrace the absurdity of it and enjoy the silliness.
The second half of the show was more of an authentic representation of what the Hoshigumi usually does, with various songs apparently familiar to Takarazuka aficionados that were as camp as just about anything Disney could put forward. The song I remember best was about being a vampire, though most of the content wasn’t quite that silly. There was a very funny comic interlude with a domineering sempai figure in a huge and absurd ballgown getting fussy about being upstaged by a young and cute idol-like group of girls, which quite bizarrely called heavily on the humour and tropes of drag – it was very much like having a drag queen or pantomime dame onstage, only in a female-only company.
In addition to the interesting gender divide, watching the audience was quite fun. In common with most Japanese musical performances, there was what seemed to be a correct way to behave – everyone clapped together, and large numbers of fans had brought glowing Hs much like the glowsticks of idol concerts to swing side to side with the beat. The appearances of the main otoko-yaku stars also inspired much excitement and febrile attempts to get noticed with a two-handed wave.
High camp, very silly and occasionally baffling, I’m pleased to have been to see Takarazuka in action.