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Japanese tradition meets Western musicals

The all-women Takarazuka Revue Company is famous for its high-quality song-and-dance shows.

By Dennis A. CavagnaroContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2005



TAKARAZUKA, JAPAN

In frustration and disgust, Rhett Butler stormed out of Tara and left Scarlett O'Hara for the last time. Scarlett looked at the audience and burst into an emotional aria, "Tomorrow Will Be Another Day."

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"Gone With The Wind," a musical? Yes, only in Japanese and by the Takarazuka Revue Company. The Rhett Butler part - faux mustache and all - was played by a special actress, an Otokoyaku, who specializes in playing male roles.

The Takarazuka Revue Company, starring some of Japan's most popular and multitalented young actresses, has theatersin both Takarazuka - a pleasant resort suburb of Osaka - and in Tokyo. It draws more than 2 million fans each year.

In a three-hour daytime show, more than 80 "Takaraziennes" will often present a complete Japanese or Western musical before an intermission, and then send their fans home with a song and dance extravaganza. The revues are dazzling, on the scale of Las Vegas, but are also suitable for all age groups.

Although relatively unknown outside Japan, the Takarazuka boasts what some consider the most spectacular stage review in the world. Although headsets are no longer available for English translation, the entertainment is so universal and professionally produced that it transcends language barriers.

Besides transforming "Gone With the Wind" into a Japanese musical, the Takarazuka has produced other original musicals, including versions of "War and Peace," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Spartacus," "James Dean," and "Cyrano de Bergerac," and has also mounted popular Broadway musicals.

The Takarazuka Revue Company was immortalized by James Michener in his bestseller "Sayonara." Although the Marlon Brando film of the same name was filmed at Takarazuka and with the troupe, the name of the group was changed.

As described in the book, the lovely but untouchable performers were extremely popular with Korean War-era GIs, who enjoyed the shows. They called the revue company the "Takarazuka All-Girls Opera."

Actually, the Takarazuka provided the cast for the 1950s film of Puccini's opera, "Madame Butterfly," shot on location in Nagasaki.

The group was formed more than 90 years ago by Ichizo Kobayashi, the president of a commuter railroad running between Takarazuka and Osaka. He, like all executives of commuter railroads, wanted to fill the trains in the reverse direction of the commute and also during the noncommuting middle of the day.

He conceived the Takarazuka Chorus to draw passengers from Osaka during the day and send them back on the trains returning to pick up the evening commuters.

His other purpose was to give young unmarried Japanese women opportunities in the performing arts, which until that time had been denied them.

As a reversal of Kabuki - traditional Japanese theater in which males take both male and female parts - the women of the Takarazuka play male and female roles. The star of the show is almost always a male role.

The Otokoyaku who play the male parts - with short-cropped hair and baritone voices - are the most popular of the Takarazuka performers, and are greeted on and off stage by screams and flowers from their fans.

The Takarazuka's prestige is so great that, despite low pay, long hours, and the disciplined, almost monastic life led by the performers, only one in 20 who applies is accepted for training. After two years of study at the Takarazuka Music School, the new entertainers are given a spot in the chorus. Nationwide fame awaits the few who become Takarazuka stars.

The Takaraziennes are divided into five troupes - Snow, Moon, Star, Flower, and Cosmos. Each has its own stars. Two troupes are always in rehearsal at the 2550-seat Takarazuka Grand Theater, which boasts two revolving stages, six lifts, wind and smoke machines, and a proscenium 25 feet high and 77-1/2 feet wide.

In Takarazuka, the Grand Theater is a short walk down Hana-no-michi (Flower Lane) from Takarazuka Station. During the intermissions in the lengthy afternoon shows, playgoers enjoy dining at the theater's many restaurants or just relaxing and gazing across the river at the beautiful Takarazuka Hotel and the mountain behind.

For more information, see http://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/top.html. Tickets range from $33 to $95 and may be purchased at the box office and at most theater ticket agencies.

The Tokyo Takarazuka Theater is just across a side street from the Imperial Hotel.

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