Lecture Note – Japanese theater: Gender-Bending Performance

Nibei Aug Takarazuka Revue

Takarazuka Revue

The Nibei Foundation held the August lecture of the Japan Study Club on August 23, 2011.

The theme and the speaker are following:

Professor Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei

Gender-Bending Performances:  Japan’s All-Female Takarazuka Revue and All-Male Kabuki Theater

The summary of the lecture is following:

Professor Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei is a Professor Emeritus of UCLA.  She is an acclaimed lecturer in Japanese theater and culture throughout the world.  She has also written and translated numerous Japanese works on Japanese theater.

She received her BA in Theater from Pomona College and a MA and PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

She explained that theater, particularly in Japan, has many diverse forms.  Types of theater run from the ritualistic and traditional Noh and Kabuki, the comic Kyogen, the puppet theater Bunraku and the modern Takarazuka.

She concentrated her talk on Kabuki and the Takarazuka.  She made the interesting analogy where Kabuki uses male actors exclusively for the male and female parts and the Takarazuka uses female actors exclusively for both male and female parts.  Kabuki was started by a woman in around 1600.

When Takarazuka was started in 1913, the thought process behind this form of theater was that it trains its actors to become future good women and wise mothers.

Kabuki started with the objective to raise money for temple buildings.  The first kabuki actors were outcasts and off center from the mainstream of society.  Such actors leaned dangerously towards counter-culturalism.  Its performances, as well as its actors, were shocking for the times.

Common themes were the geisha life; the imperial cultural life, and of passion and death.  The heavy make-up, blacken teeth and low back neck collars sent out an erotic message.  The “onna” woman was not really depicted as a real or typical woman, but as an “ideal” woman.  The “ideal” man was developed from the point of view of women.

The Takarazuka took the form of a type of “dream girl.”  The Takarazuka has its own music school that only accepts and trains only 40 actors at a time.  Therefore, to get into this school is a highly competitive feat.  The school emphases not only music, dance and performance; but also purity, discipline and academics competence.

For example, as part of Takarazuka’s first year of training, one must clean the rooms at the school facility using old-fashion methods.  This emphasis on “perfection” in cleaning is intended to transfer to a “perfection” in song and dance and in one’s whole area of existence.

Takarazuka takes on numerous influences from cultures around the world.  The “Parisian” touch, in particular, can be seen in the Takarazuka’s costumes and dances.

Takarazuka has also taken on some of the more traditional Kabuki influences, yet is incorporated in a very non-Kabuki style.  The movements in dance and music are quite different from previous types of dance.

The Takarazuka School provides a sound foundation in the arts and many of the dancers can hope to go on to have professional careers in the arts elsewhere or to just settle down and get married.

It has been asked as to why both forms, the Kabuki and the Takarazuka, use only one gender of actors in its performances.  The result of this type of casting is that actors who play cross-gender parts have a good opportunity to express a multitude of artistic avenues of expression.

Also, it is totally different from the more common types of theater and so it definitely gives the performers an interesting opportunity to play around with a vast array of performance theories and execution.

Aesthetic expressions need not be constrained in a realistic frame of mind.  For example, the art of bonsai, or dwarfed trees, may not be true “reality,” yet one is aware of the “real” versus the “non-real” and it does not take away any of the enjoyment of such “artificial” representations.

On the contrary, it gives it a most interesting touch to the whole art itself.  Therefore, in both the Kabuki and the Takarazuka, the actors playing the opposite gender displays a type of beauty and artistic expression that could never be attained in the more traditional forms of theater.

Also, depicting the “ideal man” and the “ideal woman” is definitely a crowd-pleaser.

A question and answer session followed the lecture.

Q: Where do some of the plots and stories come from?

A: The Takurazuka takes and adapts literature from all over the world.  It has done adaptations from Western themes to grand novels such as “Gone with the Wind.”

Q: Are there many drop-outs at the Takarazuka School?

A: No, there is not.  The girls have worked very hard to enter the school and work just as hard to stay in the rigorous program.  They get top training there and after they finish the program there, they have enhanced their chances of securing future theatre opportunities or marriage.