THEATRE / Love on a branch line: Two women kiss and a nation's housewives swoon. Marianne Brace welcomes Japan's all-female Takarazuka Revue Company to London

In her jeans and silk waistcoat, Takarazuka star Mira Anju doesn't look like a heart-throb. She is tall, thin and softly spoken. Without the tuxedo and stage swagger, though, it's hard to imagine her inspiring besotted housewives to write 'I want to bear your baby.'

The Takarazuka Revue Company has cult status in Japan, where productions are watched by nearly 2 million people every year. Specialising in modernised classical Japanese drama, folk dances and western musicals, it also brings literary classics to the stage. The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations and For Whom the Bell Tolls have all been given the Takarazuka treatment. And that treatment treads a fine line between the spectacular and the spectacularly tacky.

Imagine 'Doing the Lambeth Walk' sung in Japanese, or Rhett Butler sporting a hennaed quiff, or two men shimmering in sequins who, locked in a kiss, turn out to be women. A sort of distaff Farewell My Concubine (in which Chinese male opera stars were groomed for women's roles), Takarazuka is an all-woman company celebrated for its 'male' stars. And the biggest and sexiest is Mira Anju.

The girls in drag and the high-kicking chorus line are making their debut here at the Coliseum. The show includes Vegas-style numbers (glitz, glitter and more feathers than an aviary) in A Million Dreams. There's the updated traditional Japanese Kasensho, and the one-act play, This Side of the Door, based on an American short story. In order to cope with 32 scene changes and a finale involving a 26-step staircase, the Coliseum is undergoing a technical transformation. Takarazuka like to do things in style.

The company may star only women but it's run entirely by men. It was founded in 1914 by Ichizo Kobayashi, an entrepreneur who owned a stretch of railway between Osaka and the spa-town Takarazuka. Kobayashi wanted to increase his ticket sales by taking people to the end of the line. But he also hoped to bring a more popular, Western kind of entertainment to Japan with its formal all-male Noh and Kabuki theatres.

The railway management continues to run the company. While Mira Anju and her stage partner Hitomi Tsukikage are interviewed, an avuncular man in grey suit and spectacles keeps a discreet eye on proceedings. At any moment it seems he might whip out a timetable and advise on the fastest train to Tokyo. The company started with 16 actresses. It now has 400, divided into four troupes: Flower, Moon, Snow and Star. These troupes work separately, although for the Coliseum show members from each - 46 in total - will perform together. Since its beginnings, around 3,000 women have passed through Takarazuka's ranks, sometimes three generations of the same family. Every year hundreds of wanna-

bes compete for 40 places at the Takarazuka Music School.

There's little razzmatazz at the school, where the motto is 'Modesty, fairness and grace'. The new intake needs to hone its skills not only in singing and dancing but also in cleaning. Starting at seven in the morning, pupils carry out laborious tasks set for them by the older girls. As a student, 'female' star Hitomi Tsukikage says she had 'to dust down an upright piano from top to bottom, key by key, for one-and-a-half hours, every day for a year'. She was lucky. Risa Wakao, a 'male' star, got the lavatories.

'Discipline is very important,' volunteers Mira Anju. 'It's very militaristic, you have to respect your seniors. It's your workplace where you have to study to be an artist, so you have to look after it.' The army is even drafted in to teach students how to bow as men.

Sixteen is the age most girls enter the school. After two years' study, they stay with the company for about six years. Then they leave to get married. But Mira Anju joined at 18 and has remained 15 years. She has considered quitting, but each time suddenly got 'very busy. And I wasn't engaged to marry, so there was no binding reason to leave.'

Like many of the performers, Anju started out in the stalls. 'I was living in another provincial town when the Takarazuka company came. I saw the show and was mesmerised. I became an instant fan, and wished to dance as well as they do. I was interested in acting as a male, and this was the only company which could offer that opportunity.' Ask why she wanted to play a man, and the star looks puzzled. 'I thought it would be more interesting,' she says simply.

Students decide on entry whether they wish to be 'male' or 'female' players. Height and the timbre of the voice are deciding factors. The delicately feminine Hitomi Tsukikage, for instance, had also wanted to be a 'male', but her height prevented it.

There's no disputing that the boys have more fun, taking the limelight in a way which reflects the male and female roles in outside society. Even during the interview, Tsukikage defers to Anju, giggling girlishly at her older colleague.

For the fans, too, it's the 'male' stars who count. There are three Takarazuka theatres in Japan, two of which seat 2,500. Performances are sold out months in advance and fans are prepared to camp outside for hours for a glimpse of the stars. Apart from a smattering of gay men, the audiences are almost always female, made up of swooning schoolgirls and bored housewives.

For Takarazuka presents a fantasy vision of relations between the sexes, where men are sensitive, courteous, gorgeous, unthreatening. Audiences watch rapt as Anju goes through her paces. In camp erotic routines she struts, slicks back her hair and fondles the thighs and breasts of her 'female' partner.

The fantasy continues off stage. Some performers attract children. Anju - whose parts have ranged from Spartacus to James Dean - has maturer fans, 'some as old as 80 or 90', who shower 'male' star with gifts and love letters.

On one level, Takarazuka shows the power of theatre at its strongest. The fans don't really believe Anju is a man but they are seduced by the illusion, the appeal of gender-bending. On another, it's not nearly so subversive as it may seem. For all the conclusions which may be reached about Japanese womanhood responding to the coarseness of the work-obsessed Japanese male, it's still just showbusiness with traditional male-female stereotypes being reinforced.

Mira Anju doesn't find it odd to be the object of perverse infatuation - in fact she seems rather to enjoy it. 'As long as I play a male role, I want my fans to see me as a very attractive man,' she says. 'I wouldn't like any male figure I play to look weak. I like them to think: 'This is a fabulous man.' '

'Takarazuka]' plays at the Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 from 11 to 23 July. Box-office: 071-836 3161

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn