The Takarazuka Revue is an all-female performance troupe, formed in 1914. Now one of the biggest theatre companies in the world, the group is known for its spectacular performances with highly trained female actors playing male and female roles.
The leading actors of the Takarazuka Revue are celebrities. Today, they have a global fanbase and entire Wikipedia dedicated to documenting all past and current performances and trivia about the troupe (www.takawiki.com). Yet, before the internet and the increasingly connected world of the post-war era, fans had to find another outlet for their eager engagement with the Revue.
The British Museum has in its collection an incredible example of such engagement: an album of 200 postcard photographs, some signed, of the performers in the Takarazuka Revue, dating to the late 1930s.
In these photographs we see the range of characters, periods and styles used by the group. Costuming alone tells us that there were military figures from a range of historic periods, gentlemen, geisha, dancers, swooning young women and the epitome of a 1920s gangster.
This remnant of a bygone age gives us a beautiful insight to the world of Japanese theatre in the 1930s. The highly decorative costumes would have immediately expressed a character’s identity to a theatre audience. The jacket of the figure in the top right corner of the first image is so reflective is can barely be photographed, and the feathered headdress in the image below is so grand it is having to be held upright by its wearer.
These photographs also reveal the visual markers used to denote gender on stage. Beyond the outfits, the actors’ hair is modelled in short, slicked back styles for male characters. Eyebrows are also styled differently, the female characters have longer, thinner brows while their male counterparts style thicker and far straighter brows.
Photographs can tell us about what these actors wore, how they used their faces to convey their characters, and that they were revered enough to be immortalised in an album. However, there are things these photographs lack. Colour, for instance. Staging or the style of the performance too. That is where I bring in this ticket for comparison.
This ticket, saved from a Takarazuka theatre performance in Tokyo on the 17th July, 1937, is a drawing. It can therefore can give us a completely different range of insights into the 1930s performances for the Takarazuka Revue.
I must firstly point out the similarity between the figure on this ticket and the actor in the top left corner of the second album page. The resemblance is uncanny and given the similar time period the ticket must either be a representation of that exact actor or at least of the character they were playing in a show at the time.
Gender is expressed in a greater variety of ways through the drawn figure on the ticket. We can see their masculine posture, laid back and confident, dominating the space they stand in with ease. But we also see now what we could not in the photograph, the makeup on their face. The pale skin, rouged cheeks and red lip remind us that this is a female actor playing a male role. There is a sense that, no matter how convincing of a performance the actor could give, the audience must always be reminded that it is not a man they are seeing, but a male-role played by a woman.
The performances of masculinity and femininity in the Takarazuka Revue are exaggerated. The Revue presents a heightened version of femininity and a particularly elegant version of masculinity. In this sense, the Revue exposes the constructed nature of gender but also remains rigidly within the confines of a binary gender system. You are either male or female. At no point does the performance wish to the leave audiences uncertain as to the gender they are seeing performed, or the true gender of the actor in the performance.
The images in this blog post reveal to us the ways that dress and embodied behaviour were used by the Takarazuka Revue to present a strong sense of gender whilst paradoxically also highlighting the fact that gender is indeed a performance.
By Megan Stevenson
Stickland, Leonie R. 2008. Gender Gymnastics: performing and consuming Japan’s Takarazuka Revue. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.
Yamanashi, Makiko. 2012. A History of the Takarazuka Revue Since 1914: Modernity, Girls’ Culture, Japan Pop. Boston: Global Oriental.
“Album of 200 postcard photographs of actresses in the Takarazuka revue, with covers in textile. Six of them signed.” – https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_2006-0113-0-1-1-200
“A ¥2 ticket to the Tokyo Takarazuka theater performance on July 17, 1937.” – http://www.oldtokyo.com/takarazuka-gekijo/