Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 21, September 2009
Leonie R. Stickland

Gender Gymnastics:
Performing and Consuming Japan's Takarazuka Revue

Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2008
ISBN: 9781876843519 (paper); x + 281 pages; $AU49.95

reviewed by Beverley Curran

  1. A little more than a decade ago, the popular Takarazuka Revue was the subject of a groundbreaking study by Jennifer Robertson, who offered a provocative analysis of the all-woman musical theatre company and the sexual politics of the troupe and its fans to anchor an investigation of the cultural implications of androgyny and ambivalence in Japan. Leonie R. Stickland's Gender Gymnastics: Performing and Consuming Japan's Takarazuka Revue does not interrogate gender performance with the rigour of Robertson's work, but it does provide interesting historical information about the establishment and development of Takarazuka, and suggests possible directions that further study of the troupe might take. The six chapters at the heart of the book take a close look at the process of preparing and entering the Takarazuka Music School and its curriculum, choosing genders to perform onstage and off, fandom, and life after Takarazuka. The book is informed by the author's thirty-seven years of engagement with the Takarazuka Revue as 'by turns a fan, a would-be Takarasienne, a disillusioned observer, a fan once more, a translator and voice actor within the theatrical Administration, and finally a researcher' (p. 3), and through interviews and details, looks behind the scenes to offer more insights into the development of the company and the motivations of those who wish to be a part of the Takarazuka dream world as aspirants, stars, or fans.
  2. The book is more engaging in its discussion of the consumption of Takarazuka and fandom than its analysis of performing gender, partly because in countering some of Robertson's contentions, Stickland misrepresents them. Very early on, she suggests that Robertson's consideration of 'unaligned erotic play' boils down to meaning that the main attraction of Takarazuka for its fans is sexual (p. 6). In fact, Robertson was intent on understanding the tension that created the frisson between fan and Takarazuka performer, specifically the female fan and the otokoyaku, the actor who plays male roles, cultivated by ambiguous gender performances of conventional gender roles, and the mandate for all members of the troupe to repress any suggestion that this ambiguous gender—or indeed, sexuality—could also be part of off-stage lives. Stickland is much more convincing when she is discussing some of the fascinating nuts and bolts of the company, and processes taking place behind the scenes. She speaks, for example, of the Violet Code (sumire kōdo), 'a set of largely unwritten but longstanding guidelines said to govern the acceptability of anything connected with Takarazuka, both in performance and off-stage,' which edits and constrains performers and how Takarazuka appears to be consumed. It would have been interesting to know more about how this Code is circumvented or undermined by Takarasiennes as the author makes clear how much manipulation is a part of qualifying as a student of the Music School as well as succeeding onstage as a popular performer, and meeting both the demands of the troupe's administration and its fans. The author does offer a few examples of wilful transgression, such as when an ex-Takarasienne 'gleefully' points to the risqué pun inscribed in an 80s otokoyaku idol's stage name (Daichi Mao), which can be read as daichimaō, a contraction of daite shimaō, or 'I'm going to "have" you/him/her' (pp. 108–09). There are also suggestions of what the Violet Code suppresses, such as the extent of bullying that takes place in the competitive Music School.
  3. Stickland's interviews allow for a number of voices to be heard in the book. There are sixteen informants listed in the appendix; aside from one male administrator, all are retired or active members of the company. Although not identified by name, all the women are classified, in addition to their Takarazuka gender role(s), in terms of their marital status and if married or widowed, whether they have children or not. At the time of the interviews (2001), three were still performing with the company and four more were still employed by the company in a teaching or creative capacity, which made this reader wonder whether current employment status and the Violet Code had any effect on the frankness of their interviews. However, of greater concern was the way a statement by an informant would be presented without questioning its accuracy or implications. For example, informant PP, who had joined Takarazuka in the 1930s, performed primarily as an otokoyaku until retirement in the 1970s, and in 2001 was still working as a teacher there, described 'Company policy' concerning retirement from the stage as 'unique among performing arts companies in not allowing any "flagrant display of the ugliness of old age" to mar its stage' (p. 179). Stickland addresses neither the issue of how 'unique' it is for an ageing woman to find roles (or work) dry up, nor the equation of (women's) ageing with ugliness, while male privilege is extended to the otokoyaku who generally have a higher retirement age.
  4. Along with the Violet Code, Stickland introduces several other terms employed consistently by Takarazuka, including the mantra of its founder Kobayashi Ichizō, 'kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku,' which calls for doing all things purely, properly, and beautifully. It would have been interesting if the author, who is also a translator, had carefully unpacked keywords associated with Takarazuka, in a manner similar to translation theorist Yanabu Akira's deconstruction of imported terms, comparing their etymology with how they are actually employed and understood in Japanese. The blanket terms themselves undoubtedly cloak the diversity among students, stars, and fans that Stickland insists on throughout her book. Perhaps the most crucial term to consider is 'dream,' and what it signifies in Japan. Instead of trying to explain Takarazuka in terms of gender in order to respond to Robertson, it might have been more fruitful for Stickland to develop her own idea of the appeal of the troupe as romantic rather than erotic, and then align the troupe and its performance closer to Disneyland and its very popular version of 'kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku.' This would open the discussion of Takarazuka in terms of performance to include not only gender but also innocence, consumed without irony by longing fans. The question is, can the conscious performance of innocence be anything other than cynical?


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