Interview with Anthropologist Dr. Jennifer Robertson

July 21st, 2016

jrfrontWelcome back to Takarazuka Week here on Okazu! Tonight is the premier of the Takarazuka performance of Chicago at Lincoln Center. (And I have never, in my life, seen Lincoln Center push a show as hard as they are this one.) I’m already receiving reports that the show is delightful.

To celebrate and get in the mood before seeing this show tomorrow night we have a very special interview today. If you are at all familiar with Takarazuka, you know of Dr. Jennifer Robertson‘s book, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan.  It’s my great pleasure today to have Jennifer here to talk about Takarazuka. Please welcome her warmly. ^_^

 

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1. What brought your attention to Takarazuka in the first place?
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As I share in my book, Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan (2001 [1998]), I grew up in Japan, where I’ve lived for over 20+ years. During that time, someone gave us a Takarazuka LP that was added to my family’s record collection. But although that early exposure doubtless played some subliminal role in my later interest in the Revue, it wasn’t until 1976 (in Japan) that I began to notice Takarazuka actors on various television shows. The otokoyaku (man-role players) stood out as they were so much taller than the average Japanese woman (and many men) and exuded a charisma and confidence that was rare among women in Japan. I saw my first Revue performance at the Tokyo Takarazuka theatre in April 1985—The Golden Wings starring Asami Rei as the lead otokoyaku. In my opinion, she and Mine Saori, who is starring in the Revue’s Lincoln Center performance of Chicago, are two of the most talented and magnetic otokoyaku. (I know that dates me, but in the few shows and a dozen or so DVDs I’ve seen since publishing my book, I still think that Asami and Mine stand out!) Since retiring from the Revue, Asami has gone on to a successful career in theatre (as have many Takarazuka actors), and Mine is part of the new veteran-actors troupe organized by the Revue’s administration. Interestingly, the musumeyaku (woman- role player, lit. “daughter-role player, as the “woman” should be an innocent naïf), in The Golden Wings was Ichirō Maki, “officially” an otokoyaku. The Revue often assigns an otokoyaku to perform the role of women who (like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, another Revue standard) are far from naive and know a thing or two about sex! It was at that 1985 performance that I experienced the frisson of eroticized energy exuded by the Revue actors and observed the way in which the mostly female audience was transported by it to another world. More than the action on stage, however sizzling, I decided to study the Revue because of the intimate and familiar relationship I witnessed that evening between the fans and the actors.

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2. In your opinion, has there been any visible change in the way otokoyaku and musumeyaku roles are performed, or in the “gendering” of Takarazuka roles? Tomu Ran in Gyakuten Saiban ~ Yomigaeru Shinjitsu, for instance, was much less strutting and “drag king”-y and in fact, for the first time read as “a guy” to me. Have you noted any changes?
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I haven’t seen enough many live shows since 1998, and have watched only a dozen or so DVDs, also TV broadcasts, to make an informed comparison, but the fact is that Revue actors have long experimented with different styles or methods of performing the man-role. I’ve written about the Revue’s experiments with “androgyny”—i.e., creating a more “gender neutral” (chūseiteki) type of otokoyaku since the late 1960s (related in part to having otokoyaku perform the roles of charismatic and carnally experienced women). Each otokoyaku is encouraged to develop her own style of masculine performance, and invariably that includes learning from actual male actors (regardless of ethnicity, nationality, etc.) whom they admire in some capacity. Most otokoyaku will blend, tweak, and refine the characteristics of several male actors or male celebrities. Regarding your observations about Tomu Ran, it would be interesting to find out about her mix of influences. As for musumeyaku, since their femininity must highlight in contrast the masculinity of the otokoyaku, especially in the case of “golden couples” (goruden kombi, i.e., the leading man and woman of a troupe), they need to take their lead from the otokoyaku regardless, to some extent, their own sources of stylistic influence.

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3. What, if any, changes have you seen in Takarazuka fandom?
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I think it’s important to remember that in the early 20th century, Takarazuka was billed as wholesome family entertainment and attracted mixed (female and male) audiences. Only since the postwar period, and in the context of increasing (and competing) forms of theatrical and mass media entertainment, has the Revue’s audience and fan-base reflected a narrower demographic profile. That said, the stereotype of fans as “young girls” is erroneous, and continues to circulate because, in my view, many (especially male) critics cannot figure out how to explain the infatuation of mature (and/or married) women with the Takarazuka actors, and especially with the otokoyaku! The majority of fans for the past thirty years if not more have been women in their 30s and older, many of whom are married. I would be curious to learn whether, and what percentage (if such a statistic can be generated) of, unmarried women—and today a large number of women are delaying or even postponing marriage—are Takarazuka fans. I will bet though, that the huge number of ‘Zuka fans from Japan who will descend on NYC over the next week are likely in their 30s and older, and probably either employed or retired!

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I agree entirely with that and won’t take that bet. My experience with Takarazuka has been mostly adult, often middle-aged women filling the audience. Although recently I’ve seen younger (20s-30s, fans.

4. What do you think of of overseas fandom? Is it different or the same? Looking for that same something as Japanese fans, or completely different things?

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I have not researched overseas fandom, which for an enterprising social scientist, would be a great topic. One could probably explore Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Korean fan blogs/websites, but I haven’t done that in any systematic way. I know that the Revue has a large East Asian following (in addition to Japanese tourists/fans living abroad); the Cosmos Troupe (Sora-gumi) debuted in Hong Kong in January 1998! I would imagine that many of the things that Japanese fans find enticing about the Revue would be true of other East Asian fans—especially perhaps those who are jaded about corporate glass ceilings and patriarchal social structures. I mention this because in my research, I found that many fans are attracted to the otokoyaku not simply for erotic reasons but because she is a female who is capable of negotiating and succeeding on stage in activities often foreclosed to females offstage in society. How they parlay that appreciation in their everyday lives to “make a difference” is much harder to assess. That said, one of the ways in which the Revue has influenced the social life of females off stage (in Japan at least, and perhaps elsewhere) is by stimulating a butch-fem subculture (like host clubs, fan clubs) and attendant communities.

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5. You’ve been studying Takarazuka for quite a while. What are your thoughts around it’s longevity? Have there been any changes in the way Japan relates to it?

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I don’t know about how “Japan relates” to the Revue, but the state has
certainly incorporated Takarazuka into its soft power policies in Asia and
elsewhere. It’s important to remember that the Revue is owned by the megamultinational Hankyu Corporation; Hankyu sold the Braves, its baseball team, in 1988 but kept the Revue as a major moneymaker. The Revue has an affluent niche audience, and the management has responded by creating a large number of commodities that generate lucrative sales. When I first started my Takarazuka research, the Revue did not sell videos of performances—one had to copy them from the occasional TV broadcast. Nor did they promote individual actors, which, at the time, conflicted with their more communal approach to advertising the Revue. But that was then, and today the neo-liberal capitalist impulse has worked to create multiple markets out of one! The “bromide” shop in the basement of the Tokyo Takarazuka theatre run by older fans, and others like it, have been displaced by the juggernaut Hankyu Corporation’s monopolization of Revue books, DVDs, photographs, T-shirts, confections, and the usual array of museum shop paraphernalia. There are still many independent fan clubs along with the official ones, and membership in them is practically the only way to get tickets. But in addition to the money that the Revue brings to Hankyu, the Revue also continues to spin escapist dream stories set in exotic locales for audiences who need a break
from life and work as usual, and who want to take a little piece of that home with them. A win-win combination!

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Indeed it is! Now Takarazuka Revue tickets are, at least apparently, available online, I imagine I’ll never get a seat at one again. ^_^

What do you think of Takarazuka City offering same-sex marriage certificates? Do you think it has any relationship to the (to me, obvious) lesbian fandom of Takarazuka Revue?

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I think that the same-sex marriage certificates offered by Takarazuka City in
2015, following the precedent set in Tokyo (Shibuya-ku and Setagaya-ku), has
much more to do with the progressive policies of the two-term female mayor,
Nakagawa Tomoko (b. 1947), than the fact that the Revue is located there. Mayor Nakagawa, who had served in the House of Representatives, was elected in 2009 after her predecessor was arrested on bribery charges and won re-election in 2013. She has been a member of opposition parties. After she introduced the same-sexmarriage certificates, a dominant party (LDP) colleague of hers claimed that Takarazuka City would become the hub of an HIV epidemic! He later retracted his statement and apologized! Ironically, the first applicants for the same-sex certificate provided by Shibuya-ku were former otokoyaku Maki Aura, whose real name is Higashi Koyuki, and her partner Masuhara Hiroko. Both run an information service in Tokyo for sexual minorities.

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And both have detailed their recent marriage ceremony at Disney in manga form, so we’re familiar with them here at Okazu.

Well this was fantastic, Jennifer, thank you for your time and your perspective on this unique institution.

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3 Responses

  1. Liz says:

    Thanks for doing a great interview!

  2. Stacy L says:

    Fantastic interview. I’ve read most of Robertson’s Takarazuka book, but I struggle with that kind of academic writing.

    There was one gorgeous moment on the DVD of a show called Saudade where Sena Jun (as an otokoyaku) is singing while walking down the aisle among the audience and she stops and sits seductively on the lap of a woman and everyone around her (all women) squeals with delight. That was a surprise as I didn’t expect that kind of move or reaction, but it sure made me levitate.

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