BeruBara Tag Boom: Introduction

A series focused on how a musical based on a popular manga influenced Japanese women’s wrestling over the next decade.

In February of 1976, a brand new tag team made their debut for All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling and on the same night won the WWWA tag titles from Mach Fumiake and Mariko Akagi. After that night a frenzy and air of excitement would start to enter the seats of gyms and arenas around Japan in numbers that had never before been seen from Japanese women’s pro wrestling, Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda would become nationally known by their tag team name, Beauty Pair, and would become the biggest crossover sensation seen by Japanese women’s wrestling at that time. Over the span of just three years, Beauty Pair would grace the covers of countless magazines, record three albums, six singles, four solo singles between the two of them, film a biographical movie, have appearances on music shows, and have live performances in front of crowds of roaring fans; all of the while they also worked for a nationally touring wrestling company. While Mach Fumiake was the first star of All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, being runner-up in a national singing competition before her debut made her become a popular act very quickly, her impact wasn’t as revolutionary as Beauty Pair’s, Mach Fumiake helped rid women’s wrestling of its sleazy image but the decades of cultural and economic shifts that took place between the early Meiji-era into the last decades of the Showa-era meant that the craze that Beauty Pair created could’ve only happened in the small window of time that the tag team existed.

Beauty Pair’s success affected the rest of All Japan’s Women’s Pro-Wrestling’s business structure almost immediately with the creation of more tag teams with special names and coordinating outfits who would record music singles and perform their songs with choreographed dances inside the ring between matches. This tag team boom experienced in the late 1970s would extend into the next decade with the most successful examples being the Dynamite Gals, Jumping Bomb Angels, and the Crush Gals, with the help of a larger roster stacked with some of the best talent to enter a ring and an economy that was about to enter the apex of the so-called “asset bubble” the Crush Gals took everything that made Beauty Pair successful and brought it to heights never seen before or after the 1980s. After the Crush Gals split and retire at the end of the 1980s there starts a slow change away from singing tag team idols —due to changing audience demographics and the newly emerging J-Pop genre making pop music more cut-throat— and the idol wrestler becomes a performer who’s marketed on her beauty and sex appeal, not her singing ability. There were attempts at returning to singing idols in the late 90s but it proved unsuccessful and the old singing tag teams were left to live in the memories of former fans and an aging audience.

While discussions of Beauty Pair’s careers are present in Japanese wrestling spaces it rarely has any similar conversation about them reaching over into English wrestling spaces and it’s rarely, if ever seen, seen for anyone to discuss what made Beauty Pair so popular with teen girls. Wrestling fans in the West with knowledge of All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling before the 1990s always acknowledge the Crush Gals and their massive popularity with teen girls and young women but never do these same people seem to wonder why these teams resonated so much with an audience of young women and teen girls. Over the next several “episodes” I aim to explain all the key events and cultural moments that helped create the environment necessary for a concept as unique in wrestling as the Beauty Pair to be made and become the mold on which several tag teams would be created over the next decade. This is a topic that I first mulled over back when I first started to seriously watch modern joshi wrestling in 2016, but I didn’t have any of the necessary contextual knowledge to know how joshi wrestling and the Takarazuka Revue were connected but I had an inkling that the latter had influenced joshi wrestling in some way. Years later in 2018 I had watched much more classic joshi wrestling, including 1980s All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, and I started to think more and more about why these old tag teams had such great popularity and why did this seemingly large section of the audience appear to be young women and teen girls. After reading an old fan’s ameblo blog and learning more about the tag team boom of the late 70s I started to slowly connect the dots that connect the Takarazuka Revue to old joshi wrestling but I still lacked the critical information about popular girls’ media at the time and put my focus in trying to understand if the imagery that appeared to have a homoerotic undertone was tied to the increase of published yuri manga during the 1970s. This line of thinking was incorrect but something from that year of thought that wasn’t wrong was that there was indeed a big influence from a popular manga of the time that was felt in multiple entertainment mediums, The Rose of Versailles.

The Rose of Versailles started serialization in 1972 and became one of the most popular manga of that decade and one of the best selling domestically of all time. Its impact was so vast that the popular musical theater group, the Takarazuka Revue, made a musical adaptation in 1974 and over the next two years would create two more unique musicals that would go on tour and welcome more than 1 million people to watch Lady Oscar and André fall in love while leading a citizen’s army during the French Revolution. But the success of this manga didn’t miraculously happen, the creation of post-war girls’ manga started during the 1950s and traces its lineage to girls magazines popular during the pre-war period of the Taisho-era. Also in the early Taisho-era we see the creation of the aforementioned Takarazuka Revue and other all-female revue theater groups that enjoyed popularity from young couples, families and unmarried women who had a spending power never before seen for “common people” and started becoming powerful consumers. The popularity of these revue companies was not only due to the novelty of women performing on the stage for the first time since Edo but also because the actresses created an image not dissimilar from what was experienced in the new all-girls’ schools that started to dot the cities and towns. One byproduct of Japan’s modernization and opening to foreign trade were the creation of all-girls secondary schools and in these schools a new type of citizen, the shoujo, would be created and she would also start to create her own subculture away from adults and other outsiders. This culture would be defined in the burgeoning business of girls magazines that started appearing during the publication boom of the Taisho-era: unique language, art, and stories would be created in these girls magazines that would influence the new shoujo genre of manga during the 1950s and 1960s while the culture surrounding these publications would help give rise to a generation of creators that would make the revolutionary shoujo manga of the early 1970s.

Words to know for this series:

  • AJW – All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, commonly shortened to AJW in English and ZenJo (全女) in Japanese. A women’s wrestling promotion that ran from 1968-2005 founded by the Matsunaga Brothers, it would run as the only major women’s wrestling promotion in Japan until the creation of Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling (JWP) in 1986. For brevity it will continue to be referred to as AJW during this series.
  • Joshi – In literal translation, joshi (女子), would mean young woman, is often the word of choice when talking about women’s sports. To save space and time reading, joshi will be the word used when discussing Japanese women’s wrestling, ex. joshi wrestling
  • Shoujo – Shoujo (少女) can also translate to mean young woman but, especially in pre-war Japan, it also holds a connotation of being from at last the middle-class and is associated with girls that are chaste and proper. Many early girls’ schools were populated by shoujo due to girls from impoverished families often forgoing secondary education to enter the workforce or help care for the family. Shoujo would often be stereotyped to be well-dressed and more concerned with modern social norms. Benio Hanamura from Haikara-San: Here Comes Miss Modern is a good example of what a stereotypical shoujo was during the early Taisho-era
  • Takarazuka Revue – A theater company that employs an all-female cast founded in 1913. Actresses play both male and female roles while performing revue and broadway-style musicals, the Grand Theater and Takarazuka Music School are located in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture. The early Japanese name for the Takarazuka Revue (Takarazuka Kagekidan 宝塚歌劇団) was the Takarazuka Shoujo Kageki (宝塚少女歌劇)
  • Otokoyaku and Musumeyaku – Terms used in Japanese revue theater to designate which actresses play which gender on stage. Otokoyaku are actresses that play male roles while the Musumeyaku play female roles. Some Otokoyaku play female characters in select productions but a Musumeyaku would never play a male character.
  • S-Class Relationship – A non-sexual relationship between two adolescent girls that normally develops and lives in the homosocial environment of an all-girls’ secondary school. “S” comes from the first letter of the English word for sister and most S-Class relationships were built on an upperclassmen/underclassmen dynamic, many adults saw these friendships as “practice runs” for heterosexual relationships that girls would encounter after school by teaching young students how to develop emotional connections. These relationships were monogamous, you can have a large friend circle but a s-class relationship was with only one other person.

Bibliography

These are entire sources that I’ve used to complete this series, specific sections and webpages will be cited at the end of each written post.

kimumasa992. “ダイナマイトギャルオ” ameba.jp

https://profile.ameba.jp/ameba/kimumasa992/

This person’s blog has been the most critical source of information I’ve been able to find on the entire boom period of the late 1970s into the 1980s. They’ve been a fan of AJW since 1977 and have a collection of media from that time period and is where I’ve grabbed most of my photos of the era from. This blog is the place where I first read about ‘color-coding’ of the tag teams and the gendered associations with blue and red in Japan. I wouldn’t have any of the knowledge of this time period in joshi wrestling history without the person behind this blog and I am eternally grateful to them.

Robertson, Jennifer. Takarazuka: Gender Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. University of California Press, 1998.

This was the first book I purchased when I had started formulating hypotheses about the relationship between the Takarazuka Revue and old AJW tag teams. While the firm focus on homoerotic subtexts and friction between the Revue and various patriarchal forces in Japanese culture have reportedly colored Robertson’s translation work and focus of study, her documentation of Ichizou Kobayashi’s and multiple revue groups’ involvement in Japan’s propaganda machine and work in various colonies is valuable as most texts on Japanese revues gloss over or ignore their participation in the war machine.

Beasley, W.G. The Meiji Restoration. Paperback Edition. Stanford University Press, 2019.

This is seen by many as the authoritative english-language text about Japan’s Meiji Restoration of 1868. Despite being published in 1972 this book hasn’t aged as its knowledge and readable language still keeps it as a great source for the state of Japanese society during Edo, changes that occurred during late Edo, major events, the key figures, philosophies, and spiritual influences that lead the loyalists to reestablish the emperor as sole ruler of Japan. 

Shamoon, Deborah. Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan. University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

Shamoon does a great job showing the audience the evolutionary path of girls’ magazines and the artists associated with those publications to early shoujo mangaka of the 1950s and 1960s. The book finishes by discussing the impact seminal works such as The Rose of Versailles, The Heart of Thomas, Kaze to Ki no Uta/The Poem of Wind and Trees, had on the new age of shoujo manga such as the development of the Boys’ Love subgenre and how they too took visual and narrative inspiration from pre-war girls’ magazines. The book also discusses the importance of visual and linguistic aesthetics of the newly formed and ever-growing girls’ culture that was developed inside girls’ schools and in the magazines they were reading. Care is taken to ensure that the audience has the proper context needed to understand concepts, such as S-Class relationships and Nobuko Yoshiya’s posthumous ascension as a queer icon of Japanese literature despite her work and personal circle suggesting she was not against the status quo beyond her sexuality. 

Aiba, Keiko. Transformed Bodies and Gender: Experiences of Women Pro Wrestlers in Japan. Union Press, 2017.

This book is the first that I’ve found that focuses on women’s wrestling and with many interviews with wrestlers and discusses how they view themselves as wrestlers outside their sport. The main topic of the book is about how physical transformations through training, whether self-defense, bodybuilding, or in this case pro-wrestling, affects how athletes view themselves and how their bodies have changed vs how the world views them now that their bodies have shifted away from the ideal feminine body of mainstream Japan. Physical empowerment and physical feminism is defined and these theories are applied to how joshi wrestlers transform and reproduce the gender norms of a heteronormative society, and supposes how the benefits gained from physical activity could be used to promote physical feminism in Japan and help encourage women and girls in Japan to pursue physical activity and gain a sense of confidence and empowerment that changes their desire to pursue a singular ideal body that’s constructed within the heterosexual gender order.

Stickland, Leonie R. Gender Gymnastics: Performing and Consuming Japan’s Takarazuka Revue. Trans Pacific Press, 2008.

Leonie R. Stickland was a translator and voiceover actress for the Takarazuka Revue for six years, with interviews with former Takarazuka actresses, creative staff, and fans Stickland aims to explore how contemporary Japanese society and its gender norms has affected the careers of the Takarasiennes and their lives after they retire. This book also takes issues with previous English scholarship on the Takarazuka Revue, particularly that of Jennifer Roberston, and its constant fascination on the sexual aspects of the nuanced dynamics of gender within the idyllic world of the Takarazuka stage and what attracts people to the theater in the first place and what makes them become such dedicated fans.

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