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She tosses her white suit jacket over one shoulder, throws back a shot of whiskey and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. Her lip stays curled in a sneer for one moment, then broadens slowly to reveal her flawless smile. I think I' in love.

Girls will be
boys

TakarazukaBy Hilary Hinds Kitasei

Saki Asaji as Ernest Hemingway-in-heels in the swan song of her Takarazuka career - what better foil for the all-female Revue to shed light on the beauty of "male" performers than this otokoyaku in the role of Japanese women's favorite American author? We get to see our star strut and swagger in no less than eight costume changes, from tight toreador trousers to duck bullets and bulls in Civil War Spain against a towering backdrop of Picasso's Guernica, to a flapping high-waisted zoot suit for haunting the demimonde of Paris between the wars.

1000 Days is one of the biggest theaters in Tokyo, and Asaji fills it. She is only 170cm (just shy of 5'6"), but can cross its stage in a few giant strides. Her makeup is swarthy; her hair is cropped short with the forelock left long, the trademark style of otokoyaku, the actresses who play men in this all-female revue. "Her embracing power and untamed spirit project real masculinity into her male roles," say the gold-on-black T-shirts her fans wear.

That doesn't mean she's Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. She comes closer to a devilish Gary Cooper, one of the male actors she modeled herself on. But the best comparison is to Julie Andrews, who cross-dressed for the role created for her in Victor/ Victoria on Broadway last year before her career was cut short by nodules that developed on her throat.

Asaji was once Mariko, from Sagamihara City in Kanagawa. She was still in junior high school when she applied for admission to the Takarazuka Music School in the city of Takarazuka outside Osaka. Her outstanding performance in music, dance and an interview won her a spot in a class of 45, beating odds more difficult than successful applicants to Tokyo University.

Only graduates of the two-year Takarazuka Music School can perform in the Revue ("We don't care how famous or talented someone is, if she doesn't graduate from our school we don't consider hiring her," says the company) and only otokoyaku can become Top Stars. So Asaji got to second base the second year, when she was streamed into the Star Troupe, one of Takarazuka's five, and put on the Top Star track as a rising otokoyaku. The track runs straight to the top - and there's no jumping the line, as by a show-stealing performance as an understudy.

Seventeen years later, Asaji isn't even sure what her original voice was. "Probably an alto," she says, "But I sing as a male." Years of training to extend her voice range, boosted by heavy miking performances, let her belt in husky tenor.

THE PLAY'S THE THING

The only way to secure one of the best seats is to camp out overnight with the fan clubs the night before the tickets go on sale. By 10 a.m., when the box office opens, the line will be around the corner.

The less ardent route is to order tickets by phone through Play Guide (5802-9999). These tickets are from a different block than the fans'. No worse, but less steamy.

Cancellation tickets can sometimes be purchased for the same day at the box office (but only one per person). You can call first to inquire about availability (5251-2001).

1000 Days is the temporary Tokyo home of Takarazuka while the old theater in Hibiya is renovated. The red-roofed building is a cross between a Quonset hut and Todai-ji. The poetic name refers to the number of days it will be used before the old Takarazuka theater in Hibiya is finished being renovated-January 1, 2001. Go to Yurakucho Station (or walk five minutes from Hibiya Station), and it's next to the Hankyu Department Store.



UPCOMING SHOWS


January 2 (Sat), Feb 7 (Sun)
'Black Eyes" by Pushkin and 'Rue Bolero Rouge"
Tickets went on sale November 29

February 12 (Fri), March 29 (Mon)
'Elizabeth/Love and Death Rondo"
Tickets go on sale January 10

April 3 (Sat), May 10 (Mon)
'Daybreak Overture"
Tickets go on sale February 28

May 15 (Sat), June 27 (Sun)
'West Side Story"
Tickets go on sale April 11

July 2 (Fri), Aug.15 (Mon)
'Chance Encounter" and 'Nova Bosa Nova"
Tickets go on sale May 30

But Asaji's forte is considered to be acting and dancing. And because each Takarazuka troupe's repertory is built around the strengths of its Top Star, the Star Troupe is a showcase for high drama and grand staging. In the first half of the double-bill show, Asaji played Nero in 'Emperor," an original musical romance culminating with the sacking of Rome, the stage enveloped in flames, with collapsing pillars and chunks of mortar tossed onto the stage. She didn't have time to fiddle.

A Takarazuka evening reaches a crescendo with the final revue, an ever-escalating spectacle of glitter and feathers pouring like a waterfall down the famous grand staircase. Asaji herself mounted and descended the stairs in three transformations: rogue in red satin, white angel in gauzy negligee, and finally morphing into a giant turkey (or so it seemed to me that Thanksgiving week).

There was almost as much light-popping outside the theater when Asaji emerged to the mass of fans and press at 10 p.m. Monday night after her final performance. Girls and their grandmothers cheered their idol.

What is it about Asaji, and otokoyaku like her, that makes her fans mad about her?

"She's a strong woman. So strong she's a better man than a real man," said one middle-aged woman whose friends nodded in agreement.

Takarazuka was founded by a man, and is still managed by men, but there's no denying the powerful connection between the actresses and their almost exclusively female fans who have made them bigger than Kabuki. (Kabuki had to consolidate in recent years, while Takarazuka added a fifth troupe to meet the demand of its audiences around the country. Its shows frequently sell out within hours.)

Asaji's retirement this week caps a fifteen-year career of playing literary and historical heroes, and clears the way for her successor. That's Minoru Ko, whose appearance in "West Side Story" this spring is eagerly anticipated (her role has not been determined).

Until they retire, Takarazuka actresses are salaried members of a tightly regimented repertory. Then, unlike the sumo world, they are set free by the company. If it robbed Saji from the cradle, leaving her with only a junior high school education, Takarazuka has equipped her with the honed talent and face recognition that's a ticket to a film or television career. What's the future for this "triple threat" (singer/ dancer/ actor) thirty-something star? Her lips are sealed, according to the Takarazuka management.

"Sometimes they leave to get married, but we have to keep that secret," whispered an assistant. "It would spoil the fantasy for the fans."

The fantasy of Takarazuka and the public relations machine that enforces its secrets is the subject of a controversial new book by Jennifer Robertson, "Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Pop Culture in Modern Japan" (University of California Press 1998). You won't find the book in Quatre Reves, the shop next to the theater devoted to Takarazuka books, manga and memorabilia. According to Robertson, she was stonewalled and sabotaged by the Takarazuka establishment every step of the way as she tried to pull aside the veil and uncover the truth behind the all-female theater and its huge female following. That's understandable: Takarazuka is all about the veil.

Takarazuka2What Robertson calls the "official story" was crafted by Hankyu railroad and department store tycoon Ichizo Kobayashi, who embodied both Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum, and who created Takarazuka in Taisho period Japan. It is one of unmitigated wholesomeness and family entertainment. To keep secret the tales of backstage bullying, scandals and, above all, sexual innuendo that sweat from the pores of these gender-bending romances, access to the press has always been strictly controlled.

But the management can't control the fan clubs, whose members are as devoted to their idols as Dead Heads but better heeled (they lavish support on their stars). The relationship between Takarazuka and the fans is love-hate. While distancing itself from them, Takarazuka shamelessly exploits the electricity and tease of androgyny. Obviously, if it wanted its actresses to play men with verisimilitude it wouldn't dress them in heels and coif their hair. Unlike Kabuki's onnagata, who betray no trace of their masculinity, Takarazuka actresses wear their gender like a filmy costume. But offstage, they stay in character, stoking the cult of fans for whom they are otokoyaku.

A foreigner watching Takarazuka may feel less disoriented by seeing women playing men than by the sight of Japanese playing them. Every variety of us. Of course, they get us all wrong. We're cast as Carmen Miranda in Africa and Liberace in Havana. In a thousand tiny details of gestures and postures, they're off. And yet, they get so much right! And there's nothing more fun than looking in a mirror.

I have to say, "Thank you, Japan." For had it been politically-correct America, for two decades now firmly under the thumb of its multicultural police, I'm sure I would have been horrified. With it being blasphemy to interpret, much less portray, any culture not one's own, it has become a minefield to stage the Nutcracker or Madame Butterfly. While we've been tiptoeing around Orientalism like it was some kind of smoking bomb, in Japan they are mounting outrageous celebrations of Occidentalism, or more accurately "gaijinism." Oh, the illicit pleasure of a good ethnic joke. All the better if it's on one's own kind.

Yes, Takarazuka is high camp, but it's also girls' summer camp, in the best of that tradition. Its historical and cultural pretensions put Disney to shame. It's more Las Vegas than the Sands. It's uninhibited hoopla and I loved it. They hooked this Broadway mama. I'll be back-if I can get a ticket, that is.


Hilary Hinds Kitasei really is a Broadway mama. Her daughter Hana was Cosette in Les Miserables in New York before coming to Japan last year.

FEATURES:
248.9: Party animals
Party like it's 1999
247: Christmas past and Christmas present
Celebrating Christmas in Japan
246: Last train
Never be stranded again
245: Girls will be boys
The Takarazuka all-female Revue
244: Buy the book
A guide for bookworms in Tokyo
243: Like nobody's business
Tokyo's brave entrepreneurs
242: Get stuffed
Talking turkey in Tokyo
241: Fall for it
Tokyo's changing of the leaves
240: Things that go bump in the night
Guided tour of haunted Tokyo
239: The Celts are coming
The Celtic Festival descends on Tokyo
238: The price is right
Enjoying Tokyo for free
237: Deals on meals
The best bargain lunches in town
236: Secrets and lies
The booming sex trade business
234: Music Maestros
Independent record shops in Tokyo
233: Big is beautiful
What do sumo wrestlers do when they are not in the ring?

ISSUES 350+
ISSUES 349-
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