Thursday, October 3, 2019

Adventure 21/50 : Takarazuka Revue

After climbing Mount Fuji, the second item on my "must do in Japan" list was see a show at the Takarazuka Revue.

I had heard about Takarazuka years ago -- the all-female theatre company that puts on elaborate stage shows, always with a musical component. Founded in 1914 as a way to attract riders on a railway company, the Takarazuka Revue has been entertaining fans ever since -- even during WWII.

Auditions for the all-female company are fiercely contested -- there are even schools where young women attend for years to prepare for their audition. Young women 15-18 can audition, and the lucky ones get to attend the Takarazuka Music School. They then undergo years of training before they become true "Takarasiennes" and appears on stage. Even then they take roles in the large chorus of one of the five troupes and, over time, start to specialize in male or female roles.

Each of the five troupes -- Flower, Moon, Snow, Star, and Cosmos -- has a "top star" and a "top female star", two performers around whom each show is built. Top stars stay in their positions until they retire, and during their reign attract fanatical followers who stand outside the theater to see them arrive and depart... every night. Their developing chemistry -- sometimes the top stars stay together for years -- causes lots of off-stage rumors, too. In the documentary I saw about Takarazuka, a retiring Top Star was asked if she would marry now that she was retiring ... she said she wasn't sure she would be willing to be submissive to a man, since she had spent so long acting like one.

The five troupes are always in the process of rehearsing or performing one of their elaborate shows. The types of shows performed are very diverse, from adaptations of fairy tales, to operas, to classical Japanese plays, to American musicals, to takes on Hollywood movies. And in each performance, the main play is followed by a 15-20 minute intermission, and then -- a "revue" that's mainly an excuse to have a lot of singing, dancing, and sparkly costumes. So, really, even if you can't follow along with the story of the main play, you can still really enjoy the revue!

When we booked our flights it seemed like we wouldn't be able to catch a show -- one was ending in Tokyo on the day we arrived, so I couldn't imagine another show launching before we left two weeks later. So imagine my thrilled surprise when I saw that another show would launch only 5 days later -- God of Stars / Éclair Brilliant!

The Takarazuka website has plenty of information in English, and listed exactly when the tickets for the next round of shows would go on sale. So I made sure I was online at the exact time, selected the first date that worked with our other plans, and bought a pair of tickets. After making sure I had gotten the confirmation email and lowering my heart rate a little (buying tickets online always gives me an adrenaline rush!), I looked at the other dates briefly. The entire run -- some 36 performances -- had sold out. In about 10 minutes. 

Fast forward a couple of months and it was time for our show! Because we had booked tickets from overseas, we had to pick them up at will call, so we arrived at the theater early. 

The current Tokyo Takarazuka theater was built in 2001 to replace the original theater built in 1934 to give the company a venue in Tokyo. After World War II, apparently, the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater was renamed the Ernie Pyle Theater and managed by the Allied Powers. The company spent ten years performing in rented venues across the city until 1955, when they got the theater back. In 1998 it was demolished due to disrepair.

The new venue has a stage set up nearly identical to the Takarazuka Grand Theatre, which allows sets and blocking to be easily transferred between the two -- which is why they can move shows so quickly!

We picked up our tickets, noticing a group of young women holding boxes. Each of these women were showing their collections of ticket stubs to prove how dedicated they were, and hoping to be chosen if anyone had an extra ticket. There was no "anyone have tickets?" sort of shouting... the women just stood there, quietly hopeful.

We had a little time to kill before the performance, so we slipped over to the Old Imperial Bar at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo -- the ill-fated yet glorious hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and dedicated the day before the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Though much of Wright's buildings survived the quake -- and Allied bombing in WWII -- the foundations were damanged and the buildings were eventually demolished in 1976 to make way for a modern high-rise. The facade and pool were moved to an architecture museum, but the only other sliver of Wright that's left is in the Old Imperial Bar, where of course we had a classic Mount Fuji cocktail.

But we couldn't linger too long -- we needed to get over to the theater! Another sold out performance, and the fans were buzzing with excitement. I had heard that the audience was primarily female, so was surprised to see a good number of men in attendance, too. The auditorium is large but designed to give everyone a great view -- and even from the second to last row on the main floor, we felt we could see everything.

Here's a view from the side of the auditorium showing the balcony:

Eventually, the show kicked off. God of Stars was a slightly convoluted story about chefs competing in a cooking competition ... and a planned food theme park that would kick a traditional food court off its land ... and then a treacherous betrayal .... and then a contest ... and then a disappearance ... and then A HAPPY ENDING, OF COURSE!!!

I don't have any photographs of the performance, but these shots were in the gallery on the Takarazuka website:

Here's Top Star Yuzuru Kurenai in the lead role of Hong Xing-xing, the greatest chef in the world.

And here's top female star Airi Kisaki as Eileen Chow, the plucky young woman who runs a restaurant in the food court. I love how anime she looks:

And here are the two of them sparring at their first meeting. Girl meets boy, argues with boy, saves boy, boy saves girl, boy and girl fall in love... Yes, she's fighting with her shoes agains his ladle and wok...

Though the sets were simple, the production values and especially the costumes were impressive. But what I really wanted would come after the encore...

Éclair Brillant!!!

The premise was that a young man (Top Star Yuzuru Kurenai, of course) floats down to earth from space, and then sings and dances around the world. This is what we came for!

Singing, dancing, costumes galore! The crowd really loved this, and as different performers sang their solos, the audience would sometimes erupt into applause... but sometimes not. It was clear that some of the performers were audience favorites, while others were still working their way up. Yuzuru's numbers were always greeted with cheers, of course!

Sometimes a few dozen people were on the stage at once, always centered on the Top Star:

But the numbers I really loved were the ones that looked like 1920s musicals ... with the Top Star in a simple tuxedo:

... backed by dozens of other dancers, dancing their way up and down the stairs.

But that's not enough ... every revue has a grand finale, and Eclair Brilliant didn't disappoint. LOOK AT THESE CRAZY FEATHERED COSTUMES!!!

You never need wonder who the Top Star is ... he's the one with the most ridiculous costume in the center, of course! And the Top Female Star is on the right in the pink dress, and I am going to assume the the #2 star is on the left. Still a fancy costume, but not compared with the Top Star!

I don't know this for sure, but I did wonder if the stars they hold in their hands are to highlight that they are the "Star Troupe" ... and whether a performance by the Flower Troupe would feature flowers, the Snow Troupe snowflakes, etc. 

After the show we went to the shop in the lobby, where we got a bit overexcited and bought a bunch of merchandise. I really liked the posters showing Yuzuru in various roles through the years. Apparently her all-time favorite role is Percy from the Scarlet Pimpernel...

What did we buy? Well...

If you are going to Tokyo and you can possibly time it for a show, I can't recommend Takarazuka enough. Sure, it takes some planning (you'll need to be ready to buy tickets when they go on sale), but it's very Japanese and really good fun. And if you still don't believe me, watch this video.


  1. That looks like a hoot! Glad you had the chance to go Sunny!

    1. It was breathtaking -- incredible backstory, excellent production values, such talented performers, such dedicated fans! We discovered that in Japan there's a 24-hour channel dedicated to Takarazuka running interviews and old performances. Now I just need to find the online version! (And learn Japanese...)