The Wonderful World Of Lesbian Pop Culture
June 2000. I go to Berlin to watch the Japanese Takarazuka Revue live – all roles are played by women. I am so excited that I have to go and pee more than once, and I’m almost late at the Friedrichstadtpalast.
Arrived at last – and the mass of young Japanese women of every age almost flattens me. Have they come in coaches from all over Europe?
All good and expensive seats have been taken by the Japanese women. We, the few spectators who are not Japanese, are sitting at the sides.
The curtain rises, Jun Shibuki, the troupe’s Top Otokoyaku (male impersonator) enters the stage in the role of a Samurai. She almost leans into the audience and sings in a deep voice for the Japanese women in the first rows. They reach upward to her.
There is a rapid series of “Japanese” musical numbers on stage: A festival, Geishas, cherry blossoms. Where are the Otokoyaku? Men and women look so much alike in a kimono. Is this the toned down version for Western eyes?
There is an interval, and I am slightly disappointed. I have to go to the toilet (again). An endless queue. An elegant Japanese woman in her sixties loudly says “I always use the Gentlemen!” and takes me along. The elder Japanese gentleman at the urinal politely looks the other way ...
In the middle of act 2 they bring down a movie screen and show a movie for us foreigners: “The Takarazuka tradition dates back to 1913. The girls take a training at Takarazuka Music School which is based on the principles of purity, justice, and beauty.” Short scenes from revues of the last 80 years follow. At the end a scene with an Otokoyaku in a tuxedo. Thus we are prepared for the modern part of the evening.
The screen is pulled up again, and the gentleman in the tuxedo enters the stage. Suddenly the atmosphere becomes different. You positively feel everybody sit more upright in their seats: there is Sex in the air ... two Otokoyaku in gangster outfits dance a tango, their bodies in a close embrace, lovers, love songs ...
During the big tableau at the end, we all get up and applaud, screeching loudly.
The masses of Japanese women come down to the foyer and stand there as if unsure whether to leave or not, just as we do. No one wants to tear herself away. There is electricity in the atmosphere. A young girl is sobbing loudly in the arms of her girlfriend – the coaches are waiting outside.
I have a short debate with two friends I have met, whether there is a stage entrance. We decide to walk around the building, perhaps we’ll be able to catch a glimpse of one of the performers.
We were definitely not the only ones to have this idea! A sea of Japanese women awaits us. The street behind the Friedrichstadtpalast is blocked. Everybody is waiting calmly (for what?)
We decide to wait as well, and talk to a woman in her fifties, who turns out to be the president of the Jun Shibuki fanclub. She has followed her idol by plane and has attended every performance during the last two weeks – just as the endless queue of women behind her!!! She shows us a letter she has written to Jun. Everybody in the queue seems to have brought letters and presents.
We wait ...
From time to time a performer leaves the theatre through the stage entrance, wearing her everyday clothes. Alone or with a girlfriend they walk to their hotels. No one takes any notice of them (they are no stars yet).
Suddenly I feel daring. I am determined to take my chance. I grab my program and a pen and run up to an Otokoyaku who is just leaving. I shove program and pen under her nose – she is taken aback that someone wants her autograph, I am rigid with tension. We stare at each other. She comes back to earth and signs her photograph in the program – we thank each other excitedly (This has to be love!).
The next half hour I spend chasing Otokoyaku...
The crowd moves. The star leaves the theatre. She works her way through the queue of her fans, leaving with a stack of letters and presents. No autographs, sorry – after all, she is a star!
At some point (hours later) the throng dissolves.
I am told that there is a lesbian festivity at a house opposite the theatre. I think about going there with a few Otokoyaku, but then I do not dare to ask them after all ...
Much later I come back from the festival. A well-dressed Japanese girl is still waiting at the theatre. She tells me that the Otokoyaku she adores has not come out yet. After a while, she finally gives up and walks away into the night alone ...
The next day I read in the paper: The people at Friedrichstadtpalast had to reserve a ticket booth just for presents, because the theatre had been flooded with luxury goods and flowers flown in directly from Japan for the performers. The paper says in Japan it was customary for the (mostly female) fans to present their stars with designer outfits, cars and apartments ...
· Founded in 1913, the ensemble grew from initially 20 to more than 400 performers today. They are divided into five troupes: Flower Troupe (Hanagumi), Moon Troupe (Tsukigumi), Snow Troupe (Yukigumi), Star Troupe (Hoshigumi), and Cosmos Troupe (Soragumi). Each troupe has its own Top Otokoyaku and Top Musumeyaku (performer in female roles).
· The main theatre is situated in Takarazuka near Osaka, another big house in Tokyo.
· The official flower of the revue is the violet (sumire in Japanese, which is regarded a “lesbian” flower since the last century, probably because of its resemblance to the female genitals).
· The official color is purple, lately also pink.
· A special strategy of the management, known by fans as sumire code prevents (homo)sexual details about the performers from becoming public.
· There are millions of Takarazuka fans, most of them women of all ages. Often, fans are loyal to their stars for life, for example they help them to build up a career after their time with Takarazuka, do their housework, etc.
Professional male impersonators have been known in Japan at least since the 12th century, when Shinto priestesses, called “Shirabyoshi”, traveled the country and performed “male dances”.
About 500 years later the classical Kabuki theatre was founded by the famous Okuni, who danced in male attire with her colleagues: “... (They) wear male clothing ... sing dirty songs and dance vulgar dances ...”
“The person ... did not look like a woman, but like a real man ... Everyone who does not fall in love with such a beautiful person is more eerie than a ghost.” (both texts date around 1600, from “Male Colors”).
Women in male attire in the amusement quarters were coveted by women and by men.
“(The courtesans) learn to imitate the body language and behavior of men (and) are hired by female customers as their drinking companions ... (they) learn to imitate male voices.” (Text dates from around 1600, from “Male Colors”).
Besides, there were specially marked areas for lesbian prostitution.
It is interesting to note that this tradition is still valid today: Film directors Kim Longinetto and Jano Williams (who also directed “Dreamgirls”, a movie about Takarazuka) show in “Shinjuku Boys” one of the Tokyo clubs in which women in male attire act as companions for women.
However, when Ichizo Kobayashi founded the Takarazuka troupe at the beginning of the 20th century, he deliberately did not refer to these traditions, but to Western revues:
At the turn of the last century, the most popular entertainment for the “people” were music halls and vaudeville theatres. Male and female impersonators were an important asset in the early stages of revue and cabaret. Up to the 20th century they were regarded as “family entertainment”, without anyone thinking of homosexuality.
Stars like Vesta Tilley were world famous and even performed for the Queen of England (who is said to have looked away, ashamed). “The majority of her fans were women ... mostly married women from the working classes. They named their children after her, traveled through the whole country to see her shows and bought her postcards by the thousands.”
“The women of Birmingham gave her a riot-like welcome ... our parade at the Queens Hotel showed the most enormous manifestation of affection I have ever seen ... the street was blocked by the cheering crowd ...” (An eyewitness, from “Vesta Tilley”).
Vesta Tilley sang: “Girls, if you want to have a soldier, you can all love ME!” A courageous woman from the audience called out “We do!”
Lisa E. Davis comments: “We cannot estimate the sexual implications, but they must have been there – even when the female audiences before WW I were as innocent as lambs (as everybody says).”
Anyway, the flower sellers of Covent Garden every year sent Vesta Tilley a bouquet of violets for her birthday ...
When homosexuality became generally known in the 1920s, the shows lost their innocence. Male and female impersonators now performed in varietés and night clubs in ill-reputed quarters. The establishments now often were said to belong to organized criminals.
About the night clubs in the 30s and 40s in Greenwich Village: “(They) wore tuxedoes ... The Butches were overwhelming ... They had beautiful androgynous faces ... They could pass for men not only on stage, where everybody knew what they were, but also in the streets ... (The Butches) might have a good voice, but their real talents lay in how to treat women. ... Even the allegedly heterosexual ladies found the Butches irresistible ... A saying went ‘A customer this year, next year a Femme’. ... Female fans besotted with the stars gave their favorites enormous tips ... They waited in droves for their Butches after the shows ... Their offers ranged from one night stands to yachts which were eight meters long. ..” (Lisa E. Davis, from “The Persistent Desire”).
When Tsubasa Makoto, the Top Otokoyaku of the Moon Troupe, had her final performance this July, 100.000 fans applauded her. She called out to them that she loved them (“aishiteru”, a word which is not often used in public). During her last performance (“Der Rosenkavalier”) she was kissed on the cheek by two colleagues. When she wiped off the lipstick she joked “This is the worst thing I have ever done!” Finally she grabbed another Otokoyaku and kissed her on the lips, something which gave the audience hysterical fits. (Usually the performers hold a hand between their lips and their colleague’s mouth or cheek when they kiss on stage!) A female fan who witnessed the scene commented laconically: “What is Takarazuka to do – fire her?”
· Robertson, Jennifer: Takarazuka (University of California Press)
· A German summary of the book is to be found in:
· Japan – der andere Kulturführer (Insel Verlag)
· Maitland, Sara: Vesta Tilley (Virago)
· Davis, Lise E.: The Butch as Drag Artiste: Greenwich Village in the Roaring Forties, in: Nestle, Joan: The Persistent Desire (Alison Publications)
· Leipp, Gary P: Male Colors (University of California Press)
(Official homepage, the nice photos are all on the Japanese webpage, so keep clicking)
(The only English homepage I know).
(From “lespress – The Other Womens’ Magazine”, January 2002, Edition 75, Year 8)
(Translation by Heather Sparrows)