A glittering array of performers parade down a grandiose stage-wide staircase attired in sumptuous plumes of ostrich feathers and sequined costumes. Bathed in the sparkling light of a mirror ball, they sing and dance and are nothing short of, well... camp.
This is a stage show by Japan’s Takarazuka Revue. Founded 99 years ago by railroad tycoon Ichizo Kobayashi in the city of Takarazuka, the theater company is famous for its lavish, Broadway-style productions in which all men’s parts are played by the otokoyaku, a type of actress who specializes in playing male roles.
With much anticipation, the all-female musical theater troupe makes its debut appearance in Taiwan with 12 sold-out shows that run through Sunday at the National Theater (國家戲劇院) in Taipei. Divided into three parts, the 190-minute production features 40 performers from Takarazuka’s Star Troupe, led by Reon Yuzuki, who joined the company in 1999 and become one of its top stars after 10 years of perfecting her skills in performing in masculine form.
Yuzuki said she has studied and imitated the posture of men both on and off the stage, and in order not to disappoint her fans, has never been seen in skirts in public since entering the company.
The star of Takarazuka’s show is always a male role. Otokoyaku players garner admiration for the handsome gentleman characters they portray in productions that fall into the category of romantic melodrama. Indeed, it is no surprise that women constitute the majority of the troupe’s annual audiences of two and half million in Japan.
Some attribute the appeal to the female audience to its lesbian overtones; others believe the practice of otokoyaku is meant to undermine stereotypical gender roles. And if the troupe’s three-hour long rehearsal at the National Theater last Saturday is any indication, the almost century-old theater company does seem to have great fun playing with the conventional notions of gender and sexuality, consciously or not.
An eloquent example can be found in the show’s grand finale. Wearing flamboyant featured back-pieces and fur stoles, the otokoyaku stars strut down the staircase, dancing seductively. The performers’ short-cropped hair, baritone voices and gallant walk may appear masculine, but their lithe bodies and fine features exude feminine eroticism rather than masculine sexuality.
An androgynous character appears at one point, with half of her body dressed in black suit and half in white gown. Another climax comes when Yuzuki engages with another otokoyaku player in a battle scene charged with homoerotic tension.
It is commonly said that the original goal of Takarazuka is to make good wives and mothers out of the actresses who have to leave the company once married. But a glimpse of the show suggests the opposite. With its androgynous otokoyakus in flamboyant costume, the Japanese spectacle is more of a queer’s carnival than a work of wholesome entertainment for the whole family.