Photos by Mary King

Mary King goes stage left to Hyogo-ken to check out the Takarazuka review.

"She' the most gorgeous man I've ever seen. I love her and only ever think and dream of her," a young woman swooned as she clutched a photograph of a Takarazuka star to her breast while we stood in the lobby of the Grand Theater in Takarazuka. "Don't you think she's lovely, too?" she asked. Undoubtedly, the picture of Makoto Tsubasa decked out in a silvery gray shirt, tie and navy blue suit was that of a stunningly beautiful woman who could easily have been a model, but I was more in awe of this young woman's lack of embarrassment when it came to sharing with me passions that many Westerners would immediately construe as a Sapphic-like adoration.

Funny girl
But here, in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, talk of being madly in love with a woman who dresses, sings and dances like a man is considered quite the norm by the cult-like worshipers of the Takarazuka Revue - the world's only theater troupe made up entirely of unmarried women. There are thousands of female devotees, young and old alike.

The two women are typical Takarazuka fans, regularly visiting the theater to enjoy a show by any one of the five troupes that make up Takarazuka Revue. "Star Troupe, Snow Troupe, Flower Troupe and Cosmos Troupe make up the theater here, and we've seen them all perform over the years," Michiko Sato explained to me, saying that her "dream in life" was realized after she became one of the first fans to cross the threshold of the new Takarazuka 1000 Days Theater in Tokyo when it opened a few years ago.

For now Michiko's lesser dreams are answered whenever she hops on a Takarazuka-bound train and heads for the Grand Theater or the smaller Bow Hall theater in the grounds of Takarazuka Family Land - the principal magnet drawing tourists to this small onsen town midway between Osaka and Kobe. Here, fans enjoy browsing around the many souvenir stores packed with mementos of their favorite performers as well as strolling along Hana no Michi (Flower Avenue), famed for its cherry blossoms in springtime.

Mari Hanafusa and Asato Shizuki in Citrus Wind
Courtesy of Wowow

Star gazing
The camera-toting fans revel in snapping their heartthrobs when they are not sharing with like-minded spirits their passions for the revue's top otokoyaku (actress specializing in male roles). "I also love Aika Mire: She makes my heart go boom, boom, boom," giggled another middle-aged woman as she pounded her chest with all the lustful vigor of a pubescent schoolgirl. I didn't know whether to laugh or just confess to similar palpitations. Not having the foggiest idea who Aika Mire might be, I simply fanned myself and the other women with my theater program and hoped we could all cool off somewhat. "How I wish my husband was like Yu Todoroki! Real men are so awful, especially after you marry them," Kumiko Watanabe said.

"That's why we all come here. We come looking for men who give us a dream, who make us feel happy. My husband can't make me feel that way. He also doesn't know I come here... It's a secret," Watanabe added before trotting off to the auditorium to take her prized seat, where for JY7500 she would be spirited away to a harlequinade. Takarazuka Revue stages everything from tailored-for-Japan versions of such Broadway musicals as West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Oklahoma to original works based on Japanese legends and cartoons.

Inside the Takarazuka theater

Theater camp
Although nobody could ever call it highbrow entertainment, it is a delight to take in a performance of what the Takarazuka School of Music and the theater's management bill as a "world of dreams."

Intriguingly, the way most Westerners interpret the Takarazuka Revue, whose leading lights will devote as much as a decade to refining their craft in the role of otokoyaku - learning to sing, dance and act like men - is often the complete opposite of that of many Japanese. When Takarazuka Revue hit the London stage in 1994, the British capital's notoriously difficult theater critics did not spare one ounce of vitriol in dismissing the troupe's performance as little more than a kitsch drag show.

Costumes of the top performers on dsplay

Whereas many Westerners regard women who play men as "camp," Japanese fans generally perceive a world of complete innocence, where love conquers all and the otokoyaku epitomize nothing more than the "perfect male" by being beautiful, brave and as sweet as a bean-paste bun. To most fans, the revue is where manga meets the stage, where they can relish song, dance and drama, wild techno-wizardry, lavish costumes and stage sets in productions renowned for their Japanese interpretation of Western-style passion and romance. A kiss and canoodle on stage, a hand brushing a breast or gently sweeping up the inside of the slender thigh of the sequined femme fatale may be show-stoppers for Takarazuka's Japanese fans, but Westerners are perhaps captivated less by the finely tuned choreography than by the spectacle of a 1000-odd starry-eyed women in their midst.

"In many of the arts (in Japan), an innocent girl performs the part of a man, or an innocent boy performs the woman. One sex acting both sexes is not unnatural to us at all," one of the revue's directors, Shuichiro Koike, told New Yorker magazine.

Souvenir shops provide mementos for ardent fans

That may be, but the ambiguity of Takarazuka Revue is not lost on members of Japan's gay and lesbian community either. A lesbian visiting from Osaka told me: "Takarazuka Revue has a strong following among lesbians and gays in Japan. Obviously there is also speculation about the true sexuality of some otokoyaku, but ultimately Takarazuka is just a fantasy world for those who love camp entertainment."

Getting there
The journey from JR Tokyo Station to JR Shin Osaka Station by Hikari shinkansen takes just under three hours. From there, the JR Fukuchiyama Line takes about 40 minutes to reach JR Takarazuka Station.

Where to stay
Takarazuka Hotel (Tel: 0797-87-1151); Takarazuka Grand Hotel (Tel: 0797-87-1111)
Takarazuka Grand Theater (Tel: 0797-86-7777)
Tourist Information (Tel: 0797-81-5344)

Further information
Takarazuka Revue offcial website: (Japanese only)
Takarazuka city page: (Japanese only)

Shopping for kitsch omiyage

Tickets are available from ticket offices (Pia, Ticket Saison, etc.) or directly from the theater.
Takarazuka Gekidan Hoshi-gumi will be in Tokyo to perform the Rose of Versailles until May 6 at Tokyo Takarazuka Gekijo.
Shows at 1:30 and 6:30pm.
Tickets: JY3500-JY10,000.
Call: 03-5237-9000.

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