BeruBara Tag Boom: The Takarazuka Revue

Trailer for Star Troupe’s current production of Romeo and Juliette

What is a Revue?

The revue style of musical theater has its origins in medieval France as a form of public entertainment at fairs and would eventually become the early “modern” revue popularized by the Cogniard Brothers at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin and shows, at the then new, Folies-Bergère in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Much like the shows from the Middle Ages, the early French revues often had themes around a topical person or popular subject and would feature dances, comedy sketches, singing, and other types of stage performances, but during the late 1890s nudity and other sensual displays of the female body soon took over as the most popular acts in revue shows. Across the Channel in England, revues were reaching their apex of popularity at venues such as the Court Theater in London during the 1890s with a stronger emphasis on costuming and dramatic flair over linguistic whit like the French shows of the time but would shift towards a more comedic emphasis during the early twentieth century and could enjoy popularity into the 1940s. While in America the revue experienced its greatest period of popularity during the 1920s thanks to the popularity of the annual Ziegfeld Follies by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and George White’s annual Scandals. Before feature-length films and radio became the dominant entertainment mediums, many popular entertainers and musicians in Europe and America reached stardom through revue shows.

A Brief History of the Takarazuka Revue

As I touched on in a previous episode discussing S-Relationships and the rise of girls’ education, the Meiji era saw an increasing amount of Western academia, industry, and art come into Japan and caused public discourse about whether Japan was becoming too Western and what the possible effects of this changing culture could lead to. Since 1629 women had been banned from performing in kabuki by the Bakufu government as an “anti-prostitution” measure but these laws can also be seen to curtail samurai patronage to theater halls and similar establishments as high debt was becoming a more common problem among the samurai class in large cities and many government leaders sought ways to limit the samurai’s increasingly lavish lifestyles. Although there are cases of women performing during the rest of the Tokugawa period, they aren’t legally allowed to perform in theater again until 1890, in 1903 Sadayakko Kawakami made her debut in a production of Othello and became the first woman to be referred to by the new term for actress, joyuu. Kawakami would find the first school for actresses a couple years later in 1908 with the support of the Imperial Theater, the Imperial Actress Training Institution. Kismet as it was, women being able to legally become actresses happened around the development of a new type of theater much different from traditional forms like Noh and Kabuki, Shingeki (新劇). Shingeki theater took much inspiration from western theater and brought realism to its works many early writers felt were missing from the outdated Japanese theater styles, many early companies of the shingeki movement had mixed casts such as Shōyō Tsubouchi’s Bungei Kyokai and Kaoru Osanai’s Jiyū Gekijō. Jiyū Gekijō actress, Sumako Matsui, was a lightning rod for early criticism against this new wave of theater and the public perception of actors, with the character Nora from A Doll’s House questioning much of societies expectations and limitations placed on the middle-class wife and mother and the larger uproar from her racy performance as the titular character in the 1914 performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Sumako Matsui’s personal life also created a blackmark for the acting profession when she left her husband to have a relationship with fellow actor, Hougetsu Shimamura, and committed suicide after his death, her actions made it popular consensus that actresses were not of good reputation and were sexually deviant.

In 1913 Ichizou Kobayashi was a senior official with Minoo-Arima Electric Railway and wanted to increase the number of passengers from their hub in Osaka to a small town about 15 miles north-west situated next to the Muko River with a near empty bath house. Years earlier in 1911 Kobayashi and company opened a Vienna-style spa called Paradise to try and increase customer numbers but with mixed-gender swimming being banned the clientele for the spa was majority working adult men with disposable income, but the indoor pool being unheated meant that it only saw regular use during the hottest part of the summer and Paradise’s indoor pool was soon drained and made into a small theater. During Meiji era Osaka rapidly grew into an industrial powerhouse in Japan but with growing industry came increasing levels of pollution, after the turn of the century suburban development starts to grow around Osaka as it becomes more popular for families to live outside the apparent filth of the inner city and live in quieter and more peaceful countryside. Minoo-Arima Electric Railway and other companies started to lay down tracks to growing suburban areas like Ikeda, a town that Minoo-Arima owned land in that it would sell to families to build housing on, so Kobayashi felt that with Ikeda being outside of Osaka that the Paradise spa would act as a local retreat for residents that was only a train ride away. Unfortunately, with Paradise a seeming failure Kobayashi decided to look at the growing number of middle-class suburban families and decided to try something that could attract not only men but also housewives and their children who were now starting to have more disposable income for themselves and had more free time than their working husbands. Inspired by the popular boys’ musical group playing at Mitsukoshi Gofukuten’s Tokyo and Osaka department stores starting in 1910 and possibly another department store’s all-female musical group, Tokyo Shirokiya Girls’ Band, Kobayashi established the Takarazuka Choir (宝塚唱歌隊) in 1913 to take up residence in the theater created at the Paradise spa. Through the following decade different girls’ choirs would crop up through the region with the two biggest competitors coming from film studio, Shochiku, the OSK Revue (OSK日本歌劇団) in 1922 and its sister company in Tokyo, the SKD Revue (松竹歌劇団) in 1928.

The thing that people first notice about the Takarazuka Revue, and other revues in Japan, is that they have all-female casts with women playing both female and male roles. This fact becomes a head scratching moment especially for foreign observers wondering how such a phenomenon took place and the reasons as to why it became popular and continues to enjoy large popularity after over a century of existence, there are multiple reasons as to why Takarazuka employs only women to perform on stage with the many reasons stemming from the central themes in this project: class, chastity/purity, and good reputation. A simple reason as to why Kobayashi decided to create a girls’ choir is that hiring girls would be cheaper than boys and of Kobayashi’s belief that girls are naturally faster learners than boys and versatile, “The only ones to excel in gourmet cuisine are men, but it takes a woman to whip up something adequate in an instant at home.” Across the Muko River was the old Takarazuka Spa, a place that was known to have geisha offer sexual favors for payment, making some people think the Takarzuka Choir was a way to attract a larger audience of the men already going to the Paradise spa so Kobayashi and his staff had to put in work to assure parents that there was no prostitution happening in their facility and that their daughters could be safe. With the reputation of theater performers, except for the art of Noh, being subhuman/hinin during the Tokugawa period and the recent actions of Samuko Matsui, many well-off families felt that acting was an inappropriate profession for girls and could make their daughters undesirable for marriage if it was known that she participated in theater. Kobayashi made a conscious effort to recruit daughters from well-off families to help separate Tarakazuka from the reputation of mixed gender shingeki theater groups and even paid students and actresses well until the company was investigated for tax evasion in 1935. Sixteen recruits began training in mid-1913 under the guidance of opera singer and composer, Hiroshi Andou, who decided to train the girls to become an opera group instead of just a choir and band and while Andou’s suggestion of also training boys was shot down by Kobayashi his suggestion to have some of the girls dress as boys for male roles was approved. In late 1913 four more girls joined the group and the name changed to the Takarazuka Girls’ Opera Training Association (宝塚少女歌劇養成会), the students had to have completed the required six years of primary education and were taught to sing, dance, and play western instruments —to help the group stand out from traditional theater and to also help separate the girls from geisha who would play traditional Japanese instruments like the shamisen— over the course of nine months before their debut performance of Don Braco in April 1914. In 1919 a formal school was created, Takarazuka Opera and Music School (宝塚音楽歌劇学校) with Kobayashi eventually becoming principal under the pseudonym Hatao Ikeda and thus began the school themed naming conventions for Takarazuka staff that continues today. Music School attendees and graduates who had become full-time actresses for the Revue are called students, directors and choreographers are sensei, rehearsal rooms are classrooms, a possibly major reason for this was that from Meiji era until 1945 professional actors were required to be licensed and for-profit theater companies had to pay additional taxes while a non-profit group made up of amateurs who did their own hair and make-up wouldn’t have to deal with such legalities.   In January 1940 there was an ill-fated attempt to bring male students to Takarazuka to train in a four-year course taught by Shikou Tsubouchi but it only lasted a couple months before being forced to be canceled due to fierce opposition by talent, their parents, and fans to the idea of the Takarasiennes having to share the stage and facilities with, “wolf-life, tiger-like, disgusting, filthy males.” A 1,500-seat theater in Minoo Park was purchased by Kobayashi in 1920 and was transported to Takarazuka to replace the Paradise theater that the company had now outgrown, but the new theater had completely burned in a fire just three years later. This provided an opportunity though as the Takarazuka Grand Theater was built in 1924 boasting a capacity of 4,000 people and claims of being the biggest theater in Asia at this time, Takarazuka stages their first European-style revue in 1927 with Mon Paris and see an increase in popularity with recordings of the main song for Mon Paris selling 100,000 copies. 

A final attempt at introducing men into Takarazuka occurred just months after the end of WWII in December of 1945 with a couple of young men starting a three-year education at the music school with singing and ballet classes being shared with the female students, the male students were able to graduate but only performed with other Takarasiennes in smaller theaters and only sang in an off-stage choir at the Grand Theater. The rise of post-war cinema posed a serious threat to Takarazuka recovering to pre-war popularity and in keeping talent away from the allure of the silver screen but the debut of the first full-length musical, Miss Yu, the Beautiful aka Fair Lady(虞美人) in 1951 provided enough of a boost to help attract more applicants to the Music School to normal staff numbers in the coming years. Over the next two decades into the early 1970s three major events shift the Takarazuka Revue towards their first true explosion in popularity after WWII, their first telecast on NHK in February of 1953 and KTV in 1958, the death of founder Ichizou Kobayashi in 1957, and the introduction of Broadway scripts in the late 1960s with Oklahoma in 1967 and West Side Story in 1968. In a great irony to the ebbs and flows of Takarazuka’s popularity when the economy is on the rise attendance and Music School applications dip, (especially in the age of home television, movies, video games, and other types of entertainment), but when the economy and employment prospects slump attendance and Music School applications rise. There was a dip in attendance and class numbers during the economic growth of the 1960s, but the 1973 Oil Crisis brought a temporary halt to the burgeoning economy and that shift combined with the record-breaking production of The Rose of Versailles in 1974 created the “BeruBara Boom”. The “BeruBara Boom” was the explosion in popularity during the two-year run of three different Rose of Versailles scripts from 1974-1976 that attracted a live audience of approximately 1.5 million people and the writer of those scripts, Shinji Ueda, had another hit when the two-year run of Gone With the Wind had an attendance of 1.34 million people. The success of Rose of Versailles thrust the leading actresses to such a level of stardom that an integral part of the Takarazuka star system, the Top Stars aka a troupe’s Top Conbi, was formally introduced in 1976 with each otokoyaku that played Lady Oscar becoming the inaugural top otokoyaku for their perspective troupe, (Flower, Moon, Snow, and Star). With the employment ice age starting in 1990, the economic bubble bursting, and the first revival of Rose of Versailles, Takarazuka’s popularity soared during the 1990s even after the Great Hanshin Earthquake if 1995 destroying much of the region’s infrastructure Takarazuka started to create VHS tapes of their performances for commercial sale to ensure fans could still see their favorite stars on stage. In 1996 a modern classic in the Takarazuka repertoire debuted with the Star Troupe’s performance of the Austrian musical, Elisabeth, attracting a reported 2.1 million fans over eight productions before its twentieth anniversary production in 2016.

How does one join the Takarazuka Revue?

The journey to become a member of Takarazuka begins with applying to join the Takarazuka Music School(宝塚音楽学校), between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, girls that have completed all nine years of compulsory education may take their transcripts and letter of recommendation from an important adult in their life, like a teacher. Many aspiring Takarasiennes participate in private lessons are go to many available dance schools that offer classes specifically for those who want to pursue a career at Takarazuka, until the mid-1990s Takarazuka had official classes during after school hours that taught ballet, Japanese dance, and singing to sixteen- to nineteen-year-old girls called Bekka. The Music School offers similar classes to young teens, Takarazuka Kodomo Atena, on Sunday afternoons that always end in time for the three o’clock shows at the Grand Theater to help ensure a continual potential talent pool. From its creation the entrance exam consisted of a singing test, walking across the floor before the judges, and an interview with heavy emphasis on a girl’s beauty and her potential to learn the skills necessary to perform on stage but during the 1960s the entrance exam evolved into its current form: seeing a short dance demonstration and being able to replicant the routine, singing a song prepared beforehand and sight-read an unknown melody, an interview with the judging panel and a demonstration of any special abilities and skills mentioned on their application form. From this a short list is created and those girls repeat the process with a higher difficulty with the final list of girls who passed the test being posted outside the Music School. The current curriculum consists of two years of education, about forty hours a week focused on dance (ballet, tap, Japanese traditional, and modern), singing (ensemble and solo), acting classes, and piano lessons. Over the course of the students’ first year they choose, or have it determined for them, whether they want to perform as a musumeyaku or an otokoyaku, those that are at least 165cm, have a larger nose, sharper facial features, and deeper voices are very likely to become otokoyaku and start to learn how to sing and talk with what’s called their “chest voice”. Six months before graduation students submit a list of three potential stage names and nicknames to be published in the yearly yearbook, Takarazuka Otome, and for official use in all Takarazuka media, after a graduation ceremony at the Music School graduates officially become members of the Revue after participating in their debut/hatsubutai(初舞台) by performing a line dance at a Grand Theater show that usually occurs during the spring, after this graduates are officially assigned their troupes and are full-fledged members of the Takarazuka Revue. From that moment new Takarasiennes are contract employees of the Hankyu Corporation and, if the contractual agreements and rules of the Revue are followed, have guaranteed employment with the Revue for seven years. During these first seven years members perform in normal performances and what are called “Rising Star/Shinjin Kouen(新人公演)” performances that allow junior members of troupes to have more acting experience in main roles and more opportunity to grow their fanbase.

In relation to joshi wrestling

For the extensive discussion you can find online about joshi wrestling information about the product starts to dwindle once you look before the Crush Gals craze, and especially so when you reach the time period when Devil Masami was a rookie and Jaguar Yokota was still billed as Rimi Yokota. This time period exposes how little information actually reaches over to foreign fans of Japanese wrestling as a majority of my friends, social media mutuals, or followers had never heard of the Takarazuka Revue and none knowing of a connection between the Revue and the tag team wrestling boom in late 1970s AJW. The fact that one of my academic books on the Revue mention in name Beauty Pair and that multiple books about joshi wrestling written by Japanese authors also write about this inspiration as a plain fact that many would already know reminds me of the pitfalls of the 1980s and early internet era of fandom for those outside of Japan consuming anime, movies, manga, and wrestling. With the masses having to rely on those with semi or full fluency in Japanese or having friends in Japan and, quite honestly, a paltry knowledge of actual modern Japanese history so many cultural touchstones and political inspirations were lost in the process of fan translations, but the audience couldn’t know better for we didn’t have the resources to learn for ourselves. Lived experiences of the few with access to the source material and informants also greatly affected how this information is disseminated, with many wrestling writers and fans of old puro and joshi being cis men a lot of nuance and simple cultural reasons for rules set by AJW and other promotions are never touched on or are read with a lens of orientalism that it further perpetuates a “mystique” to this world of wrestling that doesn’t exist. There’s a wrestling blog out there written by someone who’s been in the world of wrestling publication since the 1990s that talks about the Beauty Pair phenomenon with a tone of authority that is undeserved considering the dismissal of the wrestling style, their popularity with young women, and full-blown misinformation about the Beauty Pair movie that it still riles me up just thinking about it.

“Also, this is TREMENDOUS- a one-hour Autobiographical MOVIE about Jackie Sato- they do a match shot like a movie would be (lots of close-ups and exaggerated sound effects), Jackie hurts her leg, and then we do a “backstory flashback” about how she got into Joshi Puroresu and becomes a big star. And also she and some other chick take on a gang of hoodlums, and she jogs to the Beauty Pair’s signature song”

That movie, A Genuine Youth, is a movie about Beauty Pair’s origins, from their time as athletes in school, how they joined AJW, how they teamed up, and their rivalry with Black Pair. That “other chick” is Mariko Akagi, at the time one of the best wrestlers on the AJW roster and would hold the record for longest time spent wrestling for AJW until Jaguar Yokota. As for the Takarazuka connection to joshi wrestling it started back in 1975 when Fuji TV started a new ad campaign to attract more mothers and children to their broadcasts, this was a major reason as to why they reached out to AJW to broadcast Mach Fumiake’s debut match and eventually made a broadcast deal with AJW. A part of that deal was that there needed to be singing in between matches, to take advantage of Mach Fumiake’s national notoriety as a singing contest runner-up, so the musical aspect of joshi wrestling starts immediately once it makes it to television. In 1976 Fumiake retires to become an actress and tv rating start to deep faster than AJW anticipated, months earlier in January of 1976 the Snow Troupe’s Tokyo performance of Rose of Versailles III was being telecast on rival network, NHK, and someone from Fuji TV’s entertainment department approached AJW telling them that they had to make a tag team that looked like an otokoyaku and musumeyaku so they could ride off the immense popularity of the Takarazuka Revue and the popular new pop duo, Pink Lady. While not instantly popular, Beauty Pair appealed to a demographic that Fuji TV wanted to watch their shows by imitating an image and sound that already had a large audience of women and by 1977 the decision paid off and the Beauty Pair mania was in full swing. This basic formula works again with the formation of Crush Gals in the mid-1980s, but while Takarazuka experiences another major upswing in popularity through the 1990s the creation of J-Pop and the fallout of the economic collapse spells doom for joshi wrestling as it’s unable to find another way bring in a female audience and maintain a talent pool large enough for the now seven promotions running in Tokyo.

Utter bullshit

So why did AJW have a ban on smoking, drinking, and dating? Why were women forced to retire at age twenty-six? Like Takarazuka, if AJW had any hope of convincing young women to audition to become wrestlers it would have to fight against twenty years of stigma that joshi wrestling was just a sideshow for lecherous men that happened in night clubs. At one point Takarazuka also had an age retirement rule, the male-dominant society of Japan demands men to take academics and athletics seriously and the idea of not completing high school and taking up a job as a stage actor or as a wrestler would be ridiculed, but as women are expected to become “Good wives and wise Mothers” they have an allowance to pick up part-time work or an unusual vocation because many may see this as her earning extra money to pay for her wedding and that the employment is only temporary anyway as around age twenty-six a good woman will decide to marry and start raising children. In many countries a woman’s value is determined by her staying chaste before marriage, especially in Edo Japan when the peasants were known for participating in casual heterosexual intercourse in contrast to the women of the samurai families, any threat to a girl’s virginity is a threat to her perceived value in society and thus we see many women’s organizations have an expectation that the women under their guidance remain good and thus we have so many dating bans. AJW carried their retirement rule for so long because they had to show the country and reinforce this idea to the talent that a good woman should consider settling down and marrying a man before her late twenties because by then she would be undesirable due to her old age. Neither of these storied institutions were created in the name of female empowerment, Takarazuka and joshi wrestling stayed all-female because society feared that if women were allowed near too many men, then their naivete would allow them to be seduced and ruin her purity and her ability to marry a good man. This doesn’t mean that Takarasiennes, joshi wrestlers, and their fans can’t feel empowered by their performances and the opportunities afforded to them by these unconventional occupations but to ignore the patriarchal world that created and controlled these secretive little worlds of the Takarazuka Revue and joshi wrestling is to ignore the reasons why these institutions even exist in the first place.

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