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  • Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan
  • Josephine Lee
Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. By Jennifer Robertson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998; pp. xvi + 278. $40.00 cloth, $15.95 paper.

Robertson’s study of the all-female Takarazuka Revue (Takarazuka kagekidan) not only provides a detailed and nuanced account of a fascinating set of performances and their contexts, but also provides a sophisticated theoretical framework for reading them. Founded in 1913, the Revue was among the modern institutions that marked the return of women to a major public stage after being banned from public (especially Kabuki) performances in 1629 but in ways that recall Kabuki conventions. One of the fundamental steps of actor training in the Takarazuka Music Academy is the assignment of a “secondary gender” according to “both physical (but not genital) and sociopsychological criteria: namely height, physique, facial shape, voice, personality, and, to a certain extent, personal preference” (11–12). Although both the otokoyaku (players of male roles) and the musumeyaku (players of female roles) are crucial to the complex gender dynamics, the Takarazuka “men” clearly dominate these spectacles. These male players, “tall, handsome women with short, slick hair and husky voices-cool, confident, and dashing in their chic suits” (1) and the steamy romances of the revues have generated not only a cadre of extremely loyal fans, but also a “fractious public debate in the Japanese mass media concerning the relationship of sex, gender, and sexuality” (27).

There is a tendency to read this cross-dressing mainly as it expresses lesbian attraction and feminist politics, an interpretation fueled by homophobic media sensationalism that equates Takarazuka worship with deviant behavior, as well as by more sympathetic views fostered by films such as the 1994 Dream Girls. But Robertson emphasizes that the erotic dreams created by the Takarazuka Revue resist “presentist and universalizing (homo)sexual politics” (42). Using statements by fans as found in letters, interviews, and fanzines, media, and other contexts, Robertson suggests both hetero- and homoerotic possibilities inherent in dimensions of a number of actor-fan relationships. Most audience members are married adult women in their thirties or older rather than the young unmarried women and teenage girls commonly considered the predominate fans (their adoration for the male players rationalized as a “safe outlet” for their “budding passions” until maturity [142]). Robertson speculates that these older fans might well be attracted to the male players, as well as the general escapist spectacles through a vicarious identification, the “possibility of one person living in two worlds” (85). While audiences and fan clubs are primarily female, Robertson also notes the significant numbers of male fans, who are also attracted both to the “spectacle of male-as-Woman” (201) of the otokoyaku and to the musumeyaku.

Although the practice of women playing men suggests a radical subversion of social norms, Robertson foregrounds the overtly patriarchal dimension of Takarazuka: “Personal motivations and desires aside, both musumeyaku and otokoyaku are products of a dominant social ideology that privileges masculinity and men” (12). There are, for instance, significant differences between Takarazuka’s and Kabuki’s cross-gendered performances. Robertson notes that while “the Kabuki player of women’s roles, or onnagata, is regarded as an exemplary model (kata) of ‘female’ (onna) gender, and actual women have been encouraged to emulate the feminine mannerisms of the male actor,” an otokoyaku remains “an actor whose theatrical duty is to showcase masculinity; she is not, however, promoted as a model for males offstage to imitate” (14). The training of students includes a regimen of cleaning duties and other domestic chores. Takarazuka’s founder, Kobayashi Ichizo, insisted that the theatre could serve to resocialize those “girls and women whose unconventional aspirations had led them to the Revue stage in the first place” (67), theorizing that “by performing as men, females learned to understand and appreciate males and the masculine psyche. Consequently, when they eventually retired from the stage and married . . . they would be better able to perform as Good Wives, Wise Mothers, knowing exactly what their husbands expected of them” (67).

And yet Kobayashi does not have the last word; Robertson methodically juxtaposes the “official” histories and...

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