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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)