Unfounded Alter Egos

Takarazuka theatre allows women to indulge in fandom while also enforcing gender roles with a skewed expectation of western ideals.  Women flock, in orderly fashion, to these showings as we saw in “Dream Girls” for a chance to see their favorite star.  But it is not the individual that they are seeing.  What these women are consuming, is the ideal of western men, as played by a female character with little foundation of what masculinity might mean to their society.  The players are trained with little knowledge of what a real man might behave like, giving the viewers a false hope of what their husbands might actually be like.

But not all in takarazuka theatre is made of masculine deception.  Fans are very aware that the players that they fawn over are merely characters, or as Nakamura and Matsuo put it “bunshin” (alter egos).  Because the fan is aware of the disconnection, between their devotion to the character and their respect for the player, it is easier for them to show their appreciation and create a relationship of mutual respect.  Fans are able to get close to the players as they arrive and shower them with gifts.  A custom that could not be possible in the western world due to our inability to step out of the fantasy space created by the players.

Takarazuka and its Progressive Views on Gender Roles…?

Takarazuka is an all female musical theater troupe that puts on performances with both male and female roles. They break traditional gender roles set by Japanese society and their constraints on women’s self expression. Dream Girls documents what goes on behind the scenes at Takarazuka and the internal structure of their troupe. Seeing how things unfold behind the scenes, I think the gender bending ends at portraying male roles. The roles are assigned based on who is able to portray the “ideal male” aesthetic and the actresses are criticized if they aren’t female or male enough. They may all be female behind the costumes and make up, but the images they portray on stage are the same cookie cutter gender roles Japan has always had. The institute itself, with its rigorous training and strict rules, is ran by mostly men. They still have the upper-hand in making decisions for the Takarazuka members. Even in the public eye, the male characters get all the fame and glory, leaving the rest of the cast in their shadow. The portrayal of female masculinity also gets lost on stage. Nakamura and Matsuo claim that the actresses who portray the male characters are “portrayed in the context of an ‘ideal male’ image… outstandingly handsome, pure, kind, emotional, charming, funny, romantic, and intelligent.” (p.63) They aren’t portraying their masculinity as women but rather painting an image of the perfect man. The gender roles only seem to be challenged on the surface level because women are playing the male roles but in reality everything that goes on behind the scenes tells the same old story of patriarchy.

Takarazuka Theater: Fantasy Spaces

The film Dream Girls (1993) frames gender reversals and gender ambiguities in Takarazuka Theater in relation to the gender politics of the housewife and salaryman. Longinotto and Williams motivate viewers to think of Takarazuka Theater as a space of escapism and fantasy for unsatisfied housewives. These fans dedicate their attention to the male roles in the theater, rather than the actors playing the female roles.
 

Nakamura and Matsuo argue that within the performances the otoko-yaku performs a type of female masculinity that allows, “an escape into the fantasy realm and identification with the otoko-yaku (2003, p. 67).” They interpret this space as ambiguous, where fans simultaneously see a masculine ideal, and identification. Though Nakamura and Matsuo see “asexual, agendered spaces created through the actor-fan relationship (2003, p. 59)”, the filmmakers argue that the Takarazuka Theater is a strictly gendered space.

The male roles in Takarazuka Theater represent a romanticized masculine ideal. Because of this, these actors become the main attraction for fans. In the film, fans answer in interviews that the male roles treat women with sensitivity, and that they care most about their partner. In comparison to the male roles, some fans answered that the salaryman only cares about work, and they treat their wives coarsely. They recognize that male role in Takarazuka is a fantasy, and that it exists on stage, but not off-stage. Furthermore, the female roles aren’t given as much attention by the fans, instead they are expected to back up the male roles. This can allow female fans to imagine themselves with the otoko-yaku. Within the school, the film shows long-takes of students cleaning the rooms evoking the image of a housewife. One of the parents of the students answers in an interview that he sent his daughter to Takarazuka Theater to learn what it is like to be a man, to prepare her for being a housewife.

Takarazuka Players: Inside and Out

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In the Takarazuka Theatre, masculinity is blurred and redefined as female students take on the roles of males for performances and fans engage with the personalities the players create. In the film “Dream Girls,” these women present their own versions of feminine masculinity through “powerful” and “sexy” portrayals of their male counterparts. Takarazuka players and fans alike make distinctions between the staged feminine masculinity and their own lives, but I argue that the movement between the two isn’t so clear-cut. The women chosen for the otaku-yaku roles spend hours on end practicing their gait, speech, and notions to earnestly capture the essence of the man as read through the eyes of Takarazuka directors and fans. This level of attachment to not just a role, but a way of being challenges the ability of the players to define themselves.

This creates a complicated situation with female fans who deny any sexual desire yet proudly proclaim their love and excitement at merely seeing their favorite idols. Inside, the players of Takarazuka who claim “Theatre is just theatre and the actors are just actors” are stuck between a rock and a hard place (Nakamura and Matsuo 70). The men that they become inside the Theatre are far from the personalities they hold in reality and I can’t imagine letting go of those traits immediately as they leave the theatre.

The perception of Takarazuka in “Dream Girls” leads me to wonder about the lives of the otaku-yaku players outside of the theatre after such interaction with other players and fans. As professional actors, I can understand their dedication to their craft, yet I believe their lives and means of representing their gender outside of the Takarazuka Theatre are more complicated than the film and the scholars make them out to be.

The Idealized Man

Takarazuka theatre produces musical performances that contain male and female roles, by an all female cast. The film Dream Girls portrays the reversals of gender ambiguities as an opportunity for these women in Takarazuka. These girls are able to perform, express, and understand their roles and responsibilities for life without being subjected into certain gender roles. Being that its an all female cast, the females also play male roles are seen by the audience as the ultimate idealized man. These women enable fan-performer relations because these productions provide their audiences with the ability to escape into a different world. The audience is able to see a new fairy tale world. The fan-performer relation is achieved by the lead male role that has the ability to create the “ideal” fantasy male, for the audience. In the film there were interviews with the fans that states how great these productions are because of the escape it provides from the real world. The film portrays the expressions of wonder and awe on their faces, and how much they envy the life they see. In Karen Nakamaru and Hisako Matsuo’s Female Masculinity and Fantasy Spaces sate that “both the otoko-yaku and onna-yaku are cintructs that exist within a particular fantasy (or fictional space).”

 

Takarazuka & Cosplay

Dream Girls documents the life of performers in Takarazuka. The cast is all female, so some females may play male parts, which is normal. They go to school to study how to perform and practice their singing, acting, and best embody their assigned character.

If women tend to have a lower voice, then they are selected to perform as a male character; and vice versa goes for women with a higher voice, meaning that they are selected to perform as a female character.

The fans are completely aware that the characters are all played by female performers. Regardless of that fact, fans continue to be excited by these performers, especially the male characters. Fans witness their ideal man and vicariously live their fantasy. Fans will write love letters to the male characters. They will wait hours on line to merely deliver these letters to the female actors dressed as a male character; the fans yearn to hear two words from the actor, “thank you.”
This fan culture reminds me of Winge’s article and cosplayers. Cosplayers and otaku, or anime and manga fans, are obsessed with certain characters in anime, manga, science fiction, and other fantasy realms. They will do a lot for these characters. When attempting to design the costumes to represent these characters at conventions and other special occasions, fans pay keen detail to the intricacies that make up the costume and best resemble the characters. Conventions, like Comic Con, occur all over the world and throughout the entire year. Crossplay is out of the ordinary but also quite normal. Crossplay is when cosplayers cross dress, or dress up as a character as that of the opposite gender from which they identify with. This can enhance the fan and cosplay experience because it is something different and adds an element of diversity.

The Reality of a Fantasy

The Takarazuka Theatre is a place where actresses provide fantasy to other female audiences. They cheer and idolize the actresses they love, especially the actresses who play the otoko-yaku(the male role). However, will they be able to have same feeling when they realize the fact the actresses they love are also struggling in the reality of Takarazuka?

In the film, Dream Girls, the actresses who portray dream are expected to play the same gender expectations in the reality. Even Anju, who was in part of the otoko-yaku, she had to retire in order to get married before she ages no more. Because that is what the society expects women in her age to do regardless of how they enjoy or do well in their career. Although she acts the “‘ideal male’ image” (Nakamura and Matsuo p.63) on stage and appeals to female audience, this eventually ends in marriage to appeal to her husband. As Anju says in the clip, her role helps her to become a good oyomesan(wife) in the future because she can understand better how men feels in certain situations.

However, this goes against the concept of the otoko-yaku, which they have to have the image of ideal males to appeal to the female audience, not male. It could be a disturbing truth for fans who considered the actresses as their “bunshin” (Nakamura and Matsuo p.65) who can portray the masculine women which cannot be accepted in the society, but in the stage of Takarazuka. I believe that their relation will change when they know that the destination of their idol is marriage. Which is the concept ironically, that they were trying to escape by going to Takarazuka but their idols are playing the role as otoko(men) to be a good wife later.

Gender Roles

Dream Girls presents a transformation of gender roles. The Takarazuka playwright Ogita Koichi explains in Karen Nakamaru and Hisako Matsuo’s Female Masculinity and Fantasy Spaces that “both the otoko-yaku and onna-yaku are constructs that exist within a particular fantasy [or fictional space]” and that it does “not equate them at all with the raw bodies of [actual] women,” I dispute that the interactions on the social level between the women leaks off the stage and into their lives that they live everyday. One example from the movie is when the interviewer talks to the main lead male and than to the woman main lead. The female performer’s attitude towards the male performers highlighted a real world perception that males are usually dominant and females usually answer to the people around them. This shows that the thoughts toward the norms of social interaction between genders are continual.

The film also portrays gender reversals in Takarazuka when Nakamura and Matsuo said in “Female Masculinity and Fantasy Specs” that fans in the theatre “temporarily transcend their everyday gender expectations and roles.” In the film, we see multiple instances of gender norms being reinforced. Men would come in and tell the dancers to be more manly and assertive. Some fans have also described the otaku-yaku as what they would like their dream man to be. This also serves to possibly say that the Takarazuka does not just emphasize gender norms, but also allows you to create an idealized version of a man that satisfies to the aspirations of a woman. Nakamura mentioned many times that the appeal of the Takarazuka student does not necessarily establish sexual desire, but a deep relationship with the performance and the ability of the performers to connect with the audience.

Gender Roles and Ambiguities in Takarazuka

In the “Female Masculinity and Fantasy Spaces”, Karen Nakamura and Hisako Matsuo mentions that these particular gendered spaces are continually centered around the masculine female heroes/heroines which allows “a creation of space where sex, gender, and sexuality are suspended within a delineated amount of time.” (61) Takarazuka offers fans these alternative fantasies to escape these heteronormative ideals. Instead of women being continuously being subjected to these socials roles of being housewives, they are able to have a more platonic lust and an emotional connection/love for all these characters. The Takarazuka Theatre is different from a traditional theatre because it allows females to have the opportunity to act as male roles. That being said, the male character being played by a female gives the female audience members the opportunity to finally have a character they can identify with that allows these fans to connect, create, and enable relationships with them. In Dream Girls, there were various scenes of fans screaming outside the theatre for their favorite actor/actress to get a glimpse of their favorite stars as they leave or arrive as well as fans camping outside the theatre to get tickets. In a more specific scene, these two fans had gave their favorite character a present with the response of a “thank you” to them, and when they girls went around the corner they had ultimately exploded with joyful emotions just because their favorite star said 2 words to them. This shows the relationships that develop between the fans and performers due to the fans being able to connect with both the female characters on stage, such that if men were playing these roles, the bond probably wouldn’t be formed.

Is Takarazuka related to Powerful Women?

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Takarazuka Theater consists of all women. Only a few members are selected as man’s roles while members are trained. When it comes to gender reversal, the Takaruka Theater can be a good example of it; however, it rather emphasizes men’s superiority in the society and the gender role.

Most women considered as supporting roles for men in Takarazuka Theater. Men’s roles are rated high and limited, so most students try to get the men’s role at the school. In the documentary film Dream Girls, one of the training in the school is close-order drilling like soldiers. This training is one for becoming men; therefore, young girls are evaluated by how they are similar to men. In other words, students who look more like men would get recognized as top students. It represents men’s superiority of the Takarazuka. Moreover, a woman who plays the role of a woman says that “I must back up to men and have to stay in background.”  As she mentions, in the play (musical), goods on promotion and the cover of DVD, male characters are centered.

Furthermore, the Takarazuka provides fans with ideal images of men, which leads women more dependent. In Female Masculinity and Fantasy Spaces, Karean Nakamura and Hisako Matsuo states that “The otoko-yaku or male impersonators in particular attract legions of female fans and have often been portrayed in the context of an ‘ideal male’ image. (63)” Indeed, most fans of Takarazuka are middle-aged housewives who do not usually feel that they are loved by their husbands. They get vicarious satisfaction through the romantic male characters. But ideal men in the musical are related to gender roles because men view women who needed to be protected by men. The Takarazuka Theater can console housewives, but it cannot change the conventional gender role.