Takarazuka is a theatre group, (though now almost a style of theatre in itself) which takes it’s name from it’s town of origin – Takarazuka – in Hyogo Prefecture. What differentiates Takarazuka, is that all of the roles are played by women. Stylistically, you might say it’s very ‘fairy-tale princess’ driven – lots of big frilly dresses, sequins and generally over-the-top performances. It also commands fanatical following from a mainly female fan base.
The production I went to see was the rather famous “Berusaiyu no Bara” (‘The Rose of Versailles’), allegedly based on some of the life of Marie Antoinette.
When you enter the Takarazuka theatre in Tokyo’s Yurakucho area, it’s all in theme – huge chandeliers, bentos being sold and adverts for every other production and TV show the actresses will be in. The first thing that will strike you is that not only will all the roles be played by women, but 99.9% of the audience are women too. I exchanged nods with the couple of other men in the cafeteria, both of whom were being led by their wives, and who were already making in-roads into some beers.
Since I’m probably only going to do this once, I was really pleased we got seats in the second row, although this is also kind of risky, as you see just how much make-up can be applied to human skin before it cracks.
To me, Takarazuka seems to have become one of those things where you don’t go and see a play/musical for the story-line, you go to see it for what it is – Takarazuka. The story-line was just pointless (really, Marie Antoinette as a nice fluffy person?), the costumes were huge and the general production values were about the same as most amateur dramatics shows; even the dancing was average, but then I must admit, it can’t be easy dancing in huge ballroom dresses which must’ve weighed more than I do. However, the producers know their audience, and they play to them 100%. I suspect that less than 5% of the audience were at their first Takarazuka – I suspect for many it’s a very regular thing.
Though I could follow most of the plot quite easily, I did get one bit wrong – I thought when Marie as a child speaks to her doll ‘Stefan’, I thought she was alluding to another character we were yet to see. Nope, she was indeed just chatting to her doll, though I was correct in my belief that Stefan would get a bigger role, and he makes another triumphant appearance just before Marie’s death. Don’t worry though, the plot really isn’t important here.
What it does well is it’s complete fairy-tale nature and melodramatic over acting. The famous death scene in the second half goes on and on for a few minutes. Poor Andre takes about ten bullets before he (she) finally slumps over a Parisian bridge (which wobbled as he/she did so, though whether that was due to poor construction or just the weight of the over-acting is difficult to say).
At this point I didn’t know whether to laugh or not, it was hilarious, but the woman next to me had her handkerchief out and was crying … Andoooreeeee … Osukaaaaa!
Like many of these kind of things, after you get over the ‘What the hell is going on?’ feeling from the first five minutes, and suspend disbelief a bit, you do actually start liking it, but just when you’re comfortable with the format, something odd happens.
Antoinette is executed, then her ghost ascends to heaven (unlikely but anyway), then, the stage is full of a lit stair case with can-can dancers coming down it… it’s hard to see where the plot goes then as there is a ten minute set of dance numbers featuring flamenco and more contemporary numbers.
In summary then, it is what it is, and it is worth doing just once, as long as you treat it as a musical revue, rather than a serious dramatic or musical production, as it likely isn’t. It is though something that is just as Japanese as Kabuki is (and that being an all male cast), and really should be on any ‘to do’ list that has Kabuki on it. It’s probably the biggest piece of ‘cosplay’ (costume play) going.
And yes, I did nod off for a minute or two during one of the slower ‘plot explanation’ scenes, and was woken by women in big dresses spinning around not five metres from me!