Japan's all-female Takarazuka Revue to go big in Asia

A panel outside the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre promoting the current show, Romeo and Juliet (far left), as well as upcoming performances by the Revue. -- PHOTO: KWAN WENG KIN
A panel outside the Tokyo Takarazuka Theatre promoting the current show, Romeo and Juliet (far left), as well as upcoming performances by the Revue. -- PHOTO: KWAN WENG KIN
A handout picture showing the all-female cast of a Takarazuka Revue performance. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY
A handout picture showing the all-female cast of a Takarazuka Revue performance. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAKARAZUKA REVUE COMPANY

MOVE over AKB48, the all-female Takarazuka Revue is coming to town!

The entertainment powerhouse whose lavish shows pack in 2.5 million people a year throughout Japan is gearing up to go big in Asia, with Singapore one of its main targets.

With Japan’s population aging and dwindling, the Revue is looking to the dynamic economies in Asia, with their rapidly growing middle class, to expand its fan base.

But not quite immediately, though.

Before it makes the big move, there are some important things that the Revue must do, like celebrating its 100th anniversary next year (2014) with gala performances all around the country.

From 2015, the Revue is expected to gradually bring its shows to Asia, beginning with Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.

A successful nine-day tour in Taiwan this April, completely organised by Revue staff themselves, has convinced it that there is a potentially huge market for its larger-than-life musical extravaganzas featuring young women in both male and female roles.

Over the years, the Revue has performed abroad 24 times in 17 foreign countries. It was in Singapore twice, in 1973 and 1982.

But those tours were mostly at the invitation of foreign governments and in the name of cultural exchange. Making money was not the motive.

The Taiwan tour was different.

To gain know-how, Revue staff booked their own halls, produced promotional materials and provided their own logistics.

Ticket sales exceeded corporate subsidies, putting the tour in the black.

The trick was tailoring parts of the show to local palates.

In addition to standard Takarazuka fare such as song-and-dance numbers, the Revue included a musical specially written for the tour based on The Legend of Chu Liu Xiang. This is a popular martial arts novel series in Taiwan.

Once it is able to raise its profile abroad, the Revue will be able to market itself as a major tourist attraction in Japan, drawing foreigners to its two permanent theatres - one in its birthplace of Takarazuka city in western Japan not far from Kobe city, and the other in the heart of Tokyo.

The Revue was the brainchild of industrialist-turned-politician Ichizo Kobayashi, who hit upon the idea of an all-girl choral group to lure people to hot springs in Takarazuka, the final stop on his Hankyu Railway’s main line.

That period of Japan’s history, the early 20th century, was also a time when the country was opening up to Western influences including song and dance shows.

Revue members, who must be single, are trained at the affiliated Takarazuka Music School, which was opened in 1913 to provide two years of rigorous singing and dancing lessons.

Competition to get into the School, known also for its strict discipline, is tough - it admits only 40 to 50 students a year.

Over the years, the school has produced hundreds of graduates for the Revue’s troupes, of which there are now five. Many Revue stars have gone on to become big entertainers in their own right.

Currently, the most famous ex-Takarazuka star is arguably Yuki Amami, 45, who was an “otokoyaku” (literally “male role”) during her Revue days and therefore the leading “man” in its productions.

Incidentally, among Takarazuka stars, “otokoyaku” garner more attention than those who play female roles and are known as “musumeyaku” (“daughter’s role”).

Some former Revue members have even gone to Parliament.

Chikage Ogi, 80, a “musumeyaku”, had gone on to become a famous actress and television anchorwoman for entertainment shows before running for the Lower House in 1977.

She was construction minister from 2001 to 2003 and crowned her 30-year political career with the post of Speaker of the Upper House from 2004 to 2007.

Ogi was known for her dramatic and eloquent defence of government positions in parliament as well as for her wit.

In 2002, when her kabuki actor husband was caught by paparazzi having a dalliance with a young geisha, Ogi laughed it off, saying: “I would be bored with a husband who is not popular with the ladies.”

The Revue owes its popularity not only to the individual talent of its performers, but also to its spectacular productions.

The typical programme consists of a musical followed by a traditional song-and-dance segment.

Each show ends with the Revue’s trademark finale in which the cast, dressed in costumes studded with sequins and ostrich feathers, strut down a steep flight of steps one by one and join hands in front of their appreciative fans for a final flourish and a deep bow.

Over the years, the Revue has staged countless musical adaptations of popular Hollywood movies such as Casablanca and The Great Gatsby and has also performed Broadway hits such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story.

It is also known for romantic musicals such as its long-running hit Rose of Versailles, which is set during the French Revolution and adapted by the Revue from a popular Japanese girls’ manga, or comic.

In 1996, it brought in the hit Viennese musical Elisabeth, about the life of the Empress of Austria, which played to great acclaim.

The Revue’s fan base is said to be 90 per cent women and they often span three generations in one family, from grandmother, to mother and down to daughter.

In recent years, in a bid to attract younger fans and also young men to its shows, the Revue has even dramatised popular computer games such as Sengoku Basara, based on characters and events from Japan’s warring states period in the 15th to 17th century, which has sold 3.3 million copies.

wengkin@sph.com.sg

The official English website of the Takarazuka Revue can be found here.