The Broader Picture: All singing, all dancing, all girls

THE Takarazuka company's newly opened show at the London Coliseum begins with a long and indigestible sequence of pseudo-traditional Japanese scenes - a Mikado without the story or the jokes. But the revue really takes off in Part Two, with 'This Side of the Door', an adaptation of an O Henry story set in America before the war. The girls of Takarazuka only come into their own when they put on dinner jackets and bow-ties and patent leather shoes, when they sport quiffs and sharp little sideburns and strut and pose with their melting, hyper-feminine partners.

With the film Go Fish opening in the same week, lesbianism is all the rage, but looking for an erotic subtext in Takarazuka is like looking for paedophilia in Alice in Wonderland. 'Pure, righteous and beautiful' is the company's motto, and no one's tongue was in their cheek when they coined it. Whatever the eye of the beholder may bring to Takarazuka (which continues at the Coliseum until 23 July), the eye of the beheld is innocent.

The company was created 80 years ago, in 1914, by a clever businessman called Ichizo Kobayashi who built a private suburban railway line from central Osaka to a spa town called Takarazuka and then racked his brains for ways to persuade people to use it. The theatre company was part of his strategy: shows throughout the day at low prices, introducing to an enormous new audience the western-style entertainment that until then had only been seen by the wealthy elite.

But why only girls? The explanations are unsatisfactory, but it proved a brilliant gimmick. The company's success has endured because its work has an odd but powerful resonance. It harks back to the transformations of the single-sex Kabuki companies, but at the same time it does something different: it is an extended enactment of how one culture adapts to another.

The first Kabuki troupes in the 16th century were all-female. When they were banned, because the actresses had degenerated into prostitutes, all-male troupes sprang up in their place, and have survived down to the present. The best Kabuki female impersonators are celebrated for playing women in a platonic, perfect way, distillations of Japanese femininity, considered to be more beautiful than the real thing because they are not onnakusai - they don't have the metaphorical 'smell' of real women.

The otokoyaku or male impersonators of Takarazuka not only represent another sex but another culture, too. When a Japanese woman impersonates an American man, she undergoes a double transformation. And by adopting the clothes, hair-style, body language and behaviour of the American man, she provides a vivid metaphor for what Japan as a nation has been striving to achieve during the past century.

Japan as self-perceived is small, weak, sensitive, cultured, fastidious, well-brought-up: a girl. The West, which barged in with Commodore Perry's black ships in 1853, was big, strong, aggressive, boorish: a man. To survive, Japan had to take on the attributes of the West: the soft girl had to impersonate the tough man. When Mira Anju, top star of the company, shimmies across the stage in her white trilby, truculent and stylish, with a gossamer-thin display of impudent bravado, she is the latest in a line of stars who have captivated Japanese audiences by their (unconscious) encapsulation of Japan's modern endeavour.

The result has the poignancy - despite the beaming smiles and flashing eyes - of all such role-playing. Of its very nature it must fall short. Mira Anju will never be Frank Sinatra in his youthful prime. This stage of black-suited non-men, with their little round heads and highlighted quiffs and cheeky grins, belongs in some limbo that never existed anywhere. 'Very third millennium,' someone said on the way out.

(Photographs omitted)

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