The Japanese Cinderella: The Takarazuka Revue

I have something very interesting to share with you today. For those studying Japanese it’s also a great opportunity for some listening material. Have you heard of the all-female musical theater troupe in Hyogo, “The Takarazuka Revue”? The shows they produce are wonderfully and unabashedly garish and ornate. While regarded socially as a bit more “haute couture” than a drag performance, the resemblance is uncanny, especially when you catch sight of the immaculate make up of the leading men. (referred to in Japanese as 男役, otokoyaku. Conversely the female roles are referred to as 娘役、musumeyaku.)

Please take a look at their take on Cinderella:

(Many thanks to the uploader)

This video is from 2008 so I hope you’ll forgive the low resolution.

The Takarazuka review began in 1913, the first year of the Taisho era. (The Taisho era immediately followed the Meiji era, an iconic period in Japanese history of reintegration with global society and rapid modernization following the dissolution of the Shogunate.) The founder, a railway CEO and politician, thought up the novelty concept of an all female troupe in contrast to the all-male Kabuki theater established centuries earlier.

The Takarazuka Music School has a cut-throat applications process, only 40 to 50 young women are accepted each year out of thousands of applicants. If you want to feel some intense second-hand stress, check out this video of the admissions announcements from 2016:

Those accepted will be divided into those who will perform either exclusively otokoyaku or musumeyaku. After two years of training at the school, they are given 7-year contracts to perform in the theater. While some women do continue to occasionally perform with the troupe after the expiration of their contract, it is more common for former actresses to move on to other pursuits. As a result the Takarazuka Revue performers are almost exclusively young, between the ages of 18-25.

From watching one of their musicals one can understand that the goal of the performers is to put on a truly spectacular performance. As a result I cannot really call their costumes historically accurate. But any fan has the right to respond: “Who cares?” to such criticism. The characters they bring to life are melodramatic, colorful, and animated. In this rendition of Cinderella I love the way the presentation of the step-sisters. Their big, stylized hair and their short skirts are reminiscent of the equally aesthetic gyaru culture. I love it those sort of deliberate references to modern culture peek through the design. One can only imagine it takes a lot of sleepless nights, research and overtime to get these costumes complete, regardless of accuracy. Many of the shows have their setting in European countries, and as a result one often wonders how the history of these countries are perceived by Japanese audiences. But one thing is for sure, these musicals are not merely renditions of Western plays, but something uniquely Japanese.

As evidence of this, I’d like to close by showing you another clip of the Takarazuka adaption of “The Rose Of Versailles”. While the costumes and characters may appear French, the origin of the story is actually a classic shoujo manga by the same name.

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