Dream Girls is a 1994 documentary about the Takarazuka Musical Revue. It follows new students just joining the school and several performers in various stages of development, interspersed with interviews of some of the fans of various performers.
In any discussion of Takarazuka, gender and gender identity are inevitable topics. Upon entering the Takarazuka school, women take either male or female roles, and are required to not only play those roles upon the stage, but to live them 24/7. And to this viewer’s eye, the insistence on those gender roles are absurdly, obscenely old-fashioned and misogynistic. So much has been written about Takarazuka and gender that honestly, it would be silly for me to even attempt a basic discussion. If you are interested, do yourself a favor and click the picture above for the Google search for this movie. You’ll find all sorts of interesting articles and comments, links to books, etc.
Instead, I’m just going to blather a bit about some of the things that made an impression upon me, personally, while watching the movie. One – most people are fascinated (and a bit skeeved) by the apparent obsession with cleaning. I’m not surprised, really. You have to remember two things.
First, that Takarazuka was founded in the newly nationalistic and militaristic early 20th century Japan, so you can easily see that the “hazing” of cleaning obsessively and with bizarre attention to detail and random rules that make no apparent sense, as simply a way of developing a military-type precision and order. It’s also a way to create a group from people with disparate backgrounds, personalities and interests – as in, “we are the ones who endured this hardship together.” The movie shows some of the cleaning/hazing but from what the performers say, the hazing rituals go WAY beyond merely obsessive cleaning. I don’t know what, exactly, they are told to do, but no less than three performers say something like, “Even when they tell you to do horrible things, it’s good for you, because you learn to endure.”
Secondly, it’s important to remember that Takarazuka was not designed to create strong, independent women – its was created to create “good wives, wise mothers.” These women are not graduating to positions of financial and personal independence; they are expected to marry and subordinate themselves fully to their husbands – something that, again, several performers comment on. One of the women who plays a female role (musumeyaku) comments that even in the school and on the stage, those who play the women are in a subordinate role. (And when I heard her say that I thought, well, you won’t be going far, will you?)
Thirdly, one cannot help but think, after watching this movie (and I apologize before I say anything, because this is simply going to be offensive) that Japanese men are clearly the biggest bunch of pricks on the PLANET. By the end of the movie I wanted to start asking around just to find a single Japanese guy who is nice to their wife or girlfriend. A lot of the time spent with the fans is on how horrible men are to them, how they have to hide their interest in Takarazuka from their husbands, how rough and coarse and unpleasant they are, etc, etc and how bad women are treated in general by society. There are so many reasons for this institutionalized sexism, I’m not going near the topic, except to comment that, when we see a newly retired male role performer (otokoyaku) with her family, her father is a raging, pompous blowhard and so far beyond condescending to the women around him that I cannot for a second imagine that they didn’t beat him to death with kitchen implements. (But then, I come from a family in which the women run the household, so it just seems alien to me.) The icing on the cake was when the former otokoyaku comments that she’ll make a better wife now because, after having worn men’s jackets on stage, she’ll understand better how to help her husband into one. I probably wouldn’t have been so enraged by the sentence, except that behind her smile was an expression of utter misery.
I know for a fact that things have changed in the last fifteen years. When this film was made performers, even Top Stars, were pressured to retire after two years or at 25, to get married. (In this sense, one’s time at Takarazuka was seen as making a more accomplished wife – just like doing ikebana or traditional dance made a woman more accomplished.) Women not married by 25 were called “Christmas Cake” – implying that the day after Christmas, no one wants a Christmas cake. Nowadays, stars remain in Takarazuka much, much longer. Older Top Stars now have their own troupe, the Superior troupe. Performers are still not financially independent and the leadership of Takarazuka is still predominantly male, but based on the number of past performers who retire to less conventional lives – running clubs, restaurants, continued performing careers – it’s not as oppressive as it was previously.
But I can’t help but think that, for the women who get to shine in the limelight, especially those who play the men, it’s a poor lookout to go from being the main focus of attention to someone behind the chorus.
If you’re a fan of Takarazuka, gender studies, women’s studies or, yes, queer studies, this movie is a very, very interesting hour spent. I can’t help but also recommend Jennifer Robertson’s book, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan.
Overall – 8
I also was surprised to note how many younger fans there were. Every discussion of Takarazuka that I have ever read comments that the fanbase is middle-aged married women. These women were way younger than “middle-aged.” One pair of fans they interviewed were, but the rest, early twenties, latest.
One last thing. The word “fan” comes from “fanatic” and at the beginning of this movie, especially, there is no doubt that that is the correct etymology. Those fans terrified me. I am 100% certain that I would crack and break before adoration/desire that intense and consuming. Luckily for me, I’m not likely to have the chance. Thank heavens. ^_^