Meet Japan’s drama queens

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Meet Japan’s drama queens


A dramatic tale of passion, sacrifice and death unfolds on stage. A colorfully dressed man, beautiful but strong, glitters under the bright lights. But look closely: Prince Charming is no prince. You're watching Takarazuka, the all-women Japanese musical troupe.
Takarazuka is the flip-side to kabuki. All the roles, male and female, are performed by women.
After the troupe started using an all-woman cast about 90 years ago, it quickly found success, and has never fallen back. Today five separate Takarazuka troupes perform about 900 shows and sell about 2 million tickets every year. There are two Takarazuka theaters, one in its eponymous hometown and one in Tokyo, and a school set up to ensure a constant supply of new talent. The performers have DVDs, CDs, fan clubs and merchandise, working its way underneath the kimono into the Japanese heart. Audiences in 120 cities outside Japan have seen Takarazuka live.
The troupe hasn’t, however, been to Korea since the country’s liberation in 1945.
Though Takarazuka performed here during the Japanese colonial era, the troupe will make its first visit to Korea proper this weekend, when the Hoshigumi, or Star Troupe, performs at Kyung Hee University. In the past, prohibitive royalties and other restrictions prevented the troupe from visiting, but this time a group of Japanese and Korean government representatives called the South Korea-Japan Parliament Union raised two-thirds of the expenses as part of the otherwise none-too-successful Korea-Japan Friendship Year 2005. Even with the contribution, other expenses totalled 500 million won ($478,000).
“In the last two or three years, Korea has seemed closer,” said Kei Aran (the performers don’t use their real names). Ms. Aran plays the female lead, or musumeyaku, in “Soul of Shiva,” one of the two acts that the group will present here.
Performed in the style of a Las Vegas show, the performance tells the story of the god Shiva, played by Ms. Aran, who gives birth to the soul of Shiva and sends him to Earth to energize the people through dance, she explained.
Wataru Kozuki plays the role of Shiva’s soul. An otokoyaku, or male lead, Ms. Kozuki also stars in the other show the troupe will perform here, “Rose of Versailles.”
“Rose of Versailles” is a tale based on Riyoko Ikeda's comic book, well-known in both Japan and Korea, about a tragic love affair during the French Revolution. Its main character, a woman raised as a soldier, was inspired by Takarazuka. “Versailles” is the troupe's longest-running show, with more than 3.5 million tickets sold since its first performance in 1974. The version to be performed in Seoul focuses on the characters of Marie Antoinette and the Duke of Fersen, who was from Sweden.
Ms. Kozuki played Fersen for the first time in September for the troupe’s Japan tour. She prepared for the role by reviewing the original comic book and the interpretations of previous Takarazuka stars. In the play, the French queen is imprisoned while the duke is in his homeland. He rushes back to rescue her, but Marie insists that she must go to the guillotine for her country. Yuri Shirahane plays the part of Marie Antoinette.

The Korean audience will be one of the first to see this pairing of actresses. Ms. Shirahane, who joined Takarazuka in 1998, was only promoted to a lead musumeyaku, the female role, in the Star Group a mere two months ago. Ms. Kozuki, on the other hand, first entered the troupe in 1987 and has performed lead roles in New York and Hong Kong.
The life of a Takarazuka actress, however, is not easy. The music school only admits a small fraction of its applicants, and not all the school's graduates enter the troupe. Actresses do not disclose their real names or ages. Freshmen at the school have to wake up every morning and spend an hour and a half cleaning, said Ms. Kozuki.
“Advanced classes are very strict, so while you're practicing you're also learning discipline,” she says. “If you make it into the troupe, though, you can stay as long as you like.” Any actress who marries, though, must leave the theater.
One reward for this hard work is instant recognizability, even outside Japan. On their first day of sightseeing in Seoul, about a dozen Korean women recognized the performers on the street.
Korea once had a theater form similar to Takarazuka, in which women played all the parts. It was called gukgeuk, and it thrived in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Performances nowadays are very few and far between.
What has allowed Takarazuka to thrive? Ms. Kozuki said she believes it's the troupe's ability to keep things fresh. “We perform Broadway musicals and original musicals, and every time we challenge ourselves with a new performace,” she said. “New students are always coming in and new stars are always being discovered, so I think that system is why audiences keep coming back.” The fact that no other group performs with all women adds to its charm.
The group's Korean publicist, Alexis Choo, adds that the group's performances appeal to the hopelessly romantic demographic of middle-aged Japanese women, who find their dream man on the Takarazuka stage. “Takarazuka fans overlap with the fans of Korean actor Bae Yong-jun, known as Yonsama. They fall for male main characters who are beautiful and soft but strong and rough at the same time,” Ms. Choo said.

This appeal has already transcended cultural limitations. “I came to know about Takarazuka after I watched the show on cable TV. I was fascinated by the dreamy world on stage and went to Japan several times to see the show,” said Ryu Seung-yeon, the president of a Korean Takarazuka fan club association. Most of the show’s Korean fans are career women age 20 to 40, Ms. Ryu said.
About 2,500 people, half the total audience for the weekend performances, will be Japanese fans who are part of a tour package that includes sightseeing in Seoul. These groups will be able to meet the performers in person for one-hour sessions.
“The purpose of the event was to bring more Japanese tourists here. This is one of the first major Japanese-language musical performances in Korea,” said Ms. Choo.
Five Korean fan clubs also tried to organize a meeting with the performers but were turned down, but can pay to sit in on the Japanese fan meeting. The Korean fans plan to wear special scarves to the performance to indicate their support.
The performers were happy to discover Seoul. “Korea seems like both a nearby and far-away country,” Ms. Kozuki said. But after visiting Namsan Park, the National Museum and Insa-dong, she said she felt more at home in Seoul than in other world cities. The surroundings feel more similar to her native Japan, she said. The performers were also impressed with the energy in the Korean show “Nanta,” which they saw in Seoul.

by Ben Applegate, Kim Soe-jung

The performance is held at Kyung Hee University’s Peace Hall. Korean subtitles are provided. The show runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. tonight and at 3 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday. Tickets are 50,000 won to 120,000 won. Hoegi station, line No. 1, but be prepared for a long walk from the station. For more information, go to
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