takarazuka review: rome at dawn


I thought I was prepared for Takarazuka, but in truth, I wasn’t.

Sometime in the middle of May, my friend Julia Cho and her husband Ed came to stay with me during a grant-funded trip through Japan for the purpose of researching popular forms of Japanese art and culture that, in one way or another, have been strongly influenced by Western forms of art. Research included a trip to the Studio Ghibli Museum outside of Tokyo, a day at a Yomiuri Giants baseball game, and a stop at the Takarazuka Grand Theater in Osaka. I’d been wanting to see a Takarazuka Revue performance for a long time and Julia and Ed’s trip out was the perfect excuse.

The Takarazuka Revue is an incredibly popular group of all-women performers who stage elaborately glorious musical productions. From Wikipedia: “The novelty of Takarazuka is that all the parts are played by women, like a mirror-image of Kabuki. The women who play male parts are referred to as otokoyaku (literally “male role”) and those who play female parts are called musumeyaku (literally “daughter role”). The costume and set designs are incredibly lavish, and the performances are melodramatically emotional.” Takarazuka performers must remain single during their careers as Takarazuka stars and once they have been designated as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ performers they are not allowed to perform other types of roles. The hugely popular stars in Takarazuka are always the women who play male roles, and in Rome at Dawn the casting was perfect in this department: Caesar was imperious and egotistical, but incredibly charismatic and never cruel; Brutus was handsome, noble, and tragically torn; and Octavian was thuggishly possesive and domineering. There’s an incredible sense of glamour about Takarazuka — the stars of Takarazuka walk comfortably within the aura of the 1930s film star — and despite the incredibly kitschy posters, there’s very little sense of kitsch inside the Grand Theater itself. In fact, Takarazuka engages with an aesthetic that seems to be becoming somewhat endangered in Japanese pop culture; rather than emphasizing the element of kawaii (‘cuteness’) that seems to be all-pervasive these days, Takarazuka emphasizes iropoi, which can roughly be translated as ‘gorgeousness.’ This “gorgeousness,” however, is the result of an incredible regime of training that begins at the Takarazuka School of Performing Arts (I’m not sure if that’s the actual name of the school). Women who want to become Takarazuka stars attend the performing arts high school at Takarazuka where they learn to play instruments, sing, dance, act, and other performing-arts related skills. During this time they must wear austere school uniforms and keep their hair plain. School duties include cleaning work, and there is a strong emphasis on a work ethic that involves dedicated practice. In short, the idea of “gorgeousness” is restructured at the Takarazuka school to emphasize gorgeousness as a product of craft and technique — in much the same way that the performance of gender becomes allied with craft and technique in Takarazuka productions. The glittering eyes of Osamu Tezuka‘s famous manga characters were at least partially inspired by his childhood trips to the Takarazuka Theater and the stunning expressiveness of the actors’ eyes.

A Takarazuka Revue performance is about three hours long, and divided into two parts. The first part is generally a play (in musical form, of course!), and the second part is pure song-and-dance revue à la Busby Berkeley. Rome at Dawn, an adaptation of Julius Caesar, was a glorious sword-and-sandal rock opera. The costumes looked like a cross between Elizabeth Taylor-era Cleopatra and something out of Liberace’s Vegas showroom. The performance began with an interesting manzai routine in which Octavian and perhaps Claudius jokingly introduced the play in front of the curtain. But when the curtain rose, Julia, Ed, and I were completely unprepared for the 80-member, epic rock, toga and laurel, introductory performance. It kind of blew us away. Roman columns, Caesar in the sunrise, patricians and plebiens, Cleopatra’s baby, political loyalty, love and honor, stab-dancing on the stage — really, what’s not to like? And the songs were all seriously catchy with leitmotifs repeating throughout the play and bringing it together thematically. In fact, the play was incredibly smartly done. As in Shakespeare’s original, the play deals with divided loyalties — specifically those of Caeser, whose loyalties are divided between love of Rome and love of power, and Brutus, whose loyalties are divided between love of Porcia, love of Caesar, and love of the Roman people (and their right to self-governance). But the play is also a meta-commentary on the dangers of populism in general, a thematic that is concretized as the performers on the stage use their star power to draw in both the Roman populace and the viewing audience. Takarazuka fans are famous for being incredibly loyal to the particular stars that they love and this type of dedication to charisma was on full display as a central problematic in Rome at Dawn. Of course, the play ends on a low note with the death of Brutus and the fall of the Republic as Octavian’s troops goose-step across the stage. This is, of course, an inadequate ending in the world of Takarazuka splendor, but instead of changing the ending of the original play, they follow the closing of the curtain with another manzai routine in which the meaning of the play is jokingly commented upon. And then there’s a final musical number in which Caesar and Brutus and the rest of the dead rise for a rousing concluding number. Political reconciliation may be impossible in real life, but these contradictions easily disappear in the world of the Takarazuka stage show.

We expected the revue proper to be a little bit of a letdown after the glorious gifts of Rome at Dawn, but again we were proven wrong. Before describing the revue, I’m going to have to backtrack a bit and describe the experience of entering the Grand Theater. The Grand Theater, located near the Hankyu Takarazuka station, looks something like a contemporary version of a German castle. The Takarazuka audience (some 2.5 million people see Takarazuka every year) is made up primarily — 98% or so — of women. So you have to imagine walking from the train station in a sea of women who are dressed up to see the Revue. And you’re walking from the train station and then this castle-like building appears. And then you’re entering the castle and there are enormous crystal chandeliers hanging over your head and you’re still walking in a sea of women and then you enter an enormous entry room with huge curving staircases and a large balcony, and then finally you enter the theater itself, and by this time it’s as if you’ve walked into a strange and intense dream. I mean, this experience is really hard to describe. So what you have to imagine is that when the second half of the performance starts, the revue proper, this dreamlike experience is replicated again and it’s as if you’re inside a dream inside a dream. The audacity of the routines, the complexity of the set design and the constant metamorphosis of the stage, the vertiginous and seemingly unending outpouring of dancers onto the stage, all of this becomes dizzying, and at times almost overwhelming. My personal favorite was the bit where lines of women in pink tutus just kept emerging from this enormous mirror-wall, seemingly endlessly. Of course, I knew that when they were exiting the stage they were simply running back and then reappearing again, but the appearance of endless appearance was so convincing that it actually started to make my head reel.

I’m not sure that anything can actually convey the exciting surreality of the revue (certainly the posters can’t), but perhaps this bizarrely poetic description of the revue (from the Takarazuka website) goes a part of the way:

LES BIJOUX BRILLANTS - Poetry of Glittering Jewels -

Scene 1 a-c:Prologue 1
As soon as the curtain rises, Bijou-Women and pretty Bijou-Women appear. Led by music and under a strong light, a gorgeous necklace comes down from above. In the middle of the stage, Bijou-Man S appears and sings the theme song.

Scene 2:Prologue 2
Diamond-Gentleman S comes out of sparkling Diamond and sings. A pompous parade starts.

Scene 3:In Front of the Curtain
A gentleman walks around on the forestage while singing and asking, “Which do you like better? A romantic love or a shining diamond necklace?”

Scenes 4 – 7:Jewels in the Night a – d
In the evening, a young man named Henri and a young woman named Yvonne enter the streets of a port town crowded with a great variety of people walking around. Yvonne catches sight of a large necklace made of jewels in the center of the window of a small antique shop. She runs toward the window, gazes hard at the necklace and is impressed by its beauty. Henri sighs over the fact that he cannot buy it for her.

Scene 8:Climax - Emerald -
Emerald-Man jumps out of a jewel-case from a bag and invites us to a faraway land that shines in shades of green.

Scene 9:Climax -Big Diamond -
Two gentlemen unconcernedly stand before the biggest diamond in the world in a jewel museum at midnight.

Scene 10:Climax - Pink Diamond -
Pink-Diamond-Man or otherwise called Rose-Diamond-Man dances with Pink-Feather-Fan-Men.

Scene 11:Climax - Black Diamond -
Black-Diamond-Man appears and invites women to sing together with him.

Scene 12 – 13:Climax - Happy Together 1 – 2 -
A woman wearing an engagement ring with a huge diamond comes onto the stage. Happy-Singers appear one after another and sing in succession.

Scene 14 – 15:Tango of Reminiscence Tango of Flaring Passion
In a tango club in Buenos Aires, a gorgeously dressed woman is dancing with a young man. A man looking for her comes into the club. The man and woman quarrel. She throws her ruby ring at him and leaves with the young man. The man sings and dances the tango driven by burning jealousy.

Scene 16:Pearl - Rockettes -
Takarazuka’s Rockettes in costumes representing orderly pearls perform a series of precision dances.

Scene 17:Finale a
Five Bijou-Young-Men appear and dance while singing.

Scene 18 a – b:Finale b – c
Blue-Sapphire-Young-Man sings while men and woman dance on the grand staircase.

Scene 19:Finale d
A secret jewel case opens and the finale begins with Dreaming Jewels sung by Etoile.

Scene 20:Finale e - Parade -
All the performers start parading along with the theme song Les Bijoux Brillants.

This is the poster for the Takarazuka Revue performance of The Rose of Versailles, one of the most popular Takarazuka productions ever. I really wanted to see it, but the scheduling didn’t work out. The Rose of Versailles is based on the incredibly popular shojo manga by Riyoko Ikeda and involves Marie Antoinette, a palace guard named Oscar who is a woman raised as a man, the French Revolution, and some Swedish Count named Axel von Fersen.

Speaking of plays, Julia’s research interests in Japan have to do with the fact that she herself is a playwright. I had the pleasure of seeing a reading of one of her earlier plays — 99 Histories — at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and it was fantastic. Of course, like all artists, Julia is a bit shy about her early work, so if you have the opportunity you should go and see her new work. Her play Durango will be opening at the Public Theater in New York in November of 2006, and The Piano Teacher will open in March of 2007 at the South Coast Reperatory Theater in Costa Mesa, California.

Click here for a brief Julia Cho bio and some information about her work.


2 Responses to “takarazuka review: rome at dawn”

  1. 1 ill man

    Hi Trane!

    The description of the Takarazuka was just fine. Needless to say it’s something I’d love to witness one day. Right, i’m off to check what i’ve missed over the past few months.

    Ill Man

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    Oh yeah – you should definitely see it if you get a chance.

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