Between The Revues: Takarazuka 101


Original Script, for those who prefer to read:

One of the more talked about anime series of summer 2018 is Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight. A musical anime about nine actresses all fighting for the right to become Top Star. The project itself is part of a larger mixed media project that kicked off last year with a stage musical, several CD singles, not one, not two, but three separate manga series, a concert, a second musical and even an upcoming RPG for smartphones.

Suffice to say, it’s a pretty big project that Bushiroad have unleashed upon the world. I’m a fan myself, owning the first musical on bluray and having won tickets to go see the second musical next month in Tokyo. But me being interested in the project shouldn’t come as a huge surprise since I’ve been a big fan of theater, in particular musical theater, all my life. Revue Starlight was kind of tailor made for me in that regard.

However, with the release of the anime I’ve noticed a contrast in reception. While Japan have been praising the series, western viewers have expressed confused and sometimes misinformed takes in regards to the series nature and influences. While this frustrated me at first, I soon realized that this was not really that surprising. After all, the west is not really that invested in Japan’s musical theater scene.

And that’s why we’re going to talk about that scene, specifically the biggest game in town since over a century back, the Takarazuka Revue. Welcome to Between the Revues.

Takarazuka 101

Let’s start from the beginning, which happens to be the year 1913 in the city Takarazuka in the Hyougo Prefecture of Japan. Everything begins with this man, Kobayashi Ichizo, who at the time was the president of Hankyu Railways – a railway company, if that wasn’t obvious.

Kobayashi had a problem. Takarazuka happened to be the final stop for the trains and very few people actually travelled all the way to the city, with the exception of people coming to bathe in the local hot springs, which obviously wasn’t good for business. Hoping he could create a tourist attraction that could get more people to visit Takarazuka, he founded a theater company. Takarazuka Kagekidan – it literally means Takarazuka Theater Company.

At the time, the most popular form of theater in Japan was kabuki theater, which Kobayashi found quite old fashioned and quite elitist. So he decided to opt for something with a more western feel, as the younger generation were rather fond of western song and dance. Finally, he needed a gimmick that would set Takarazuka Kagekidan apart from everything else.

The answer was… GIRLS!

Every performer on stage in a Takarazuka show was to be a woman, regardless of the character they’re playing or if there’s romantic scenes involved. This, thought Kobayashi, would truly set his theater company apart from all the others and make it a huge success. He was right.

Merely a decade later, Takarazuka Kagekidan opened its own grand theater and the popularity of the shows just kept increasing until no other stage production in Japan could even think to match its success. Today productions are split between five separate troupes. Hoshigumi, Hanagumi, Yukigumi, Soragumi and Tsukigumi. Star, Flower, Snow, Cosmos and Moon.

All five troupes have huge casts of talents who have all attended Takarazuka’s own academy to be accepted into the company’s employment. Each troupe also has a Top Star who plays the lead in all major productions, but we’ll talk more about that later, for now all you need to know is that Takarazuka is larger than life and no other theater company in Japan could dare to compare to its size or popularity.

Many of Takarazuka’s productions are Japanese localizations of western musicals such as the French-Canadian musical Don Juan based on Tirso de Molina’s famous seductive ladykiller, the Viennese musical Elisabeth by German writer Michael Kunze and perhaps most famously, Takarazuka’s production of Phantom, based on Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera. And no, this is not the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical but the earlier commissioned, though later released, musical by Maury Yeston based on the same story.

Adaptations of Japanese native stories are common as well. Takarazuka have adapted Lupin III, Ace Attorney, Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Sengoku Basara for the stage just to name a few. A fair number of original musicals, often based on historical events, have been produced as well. Including biographies such as Dean and Last Party, about James Dean and Francis Scott Fitzgerald respectively. There’s more to their repertoire than these examples, but as much as Takarazuka take inspiration from others, they inspire others just the same.

Tezuka Osamu was inspired by Takarazuka when he wrote the first adventure manga for girls, Princess Knight, which in turn sow the seed for the mahou shoujo trope. Ikeda Riyoko took a lot of inspiration from the dashing women playing men when writing the classic manga The Rose of Versailles, Takeuchi Naoko borrowed plenty when creating Sailor Moon and perhaps most famously, Ikuhara Kunihiko and Saito Chiho’s series Revolutionary Girl Utena is essentially one big Takarazuka homage.

All four of these series have also seen musical adaptations. Princess Knight got two stage musicals in 2006 and 2015 respectively. The Rose of Versailles was adapted by Takarazuka itself and has become a highly popular recurring production. Sailor Moon have had countless musicals since the mid-90s, the most recent one even sharing talent with Revue Starlight’s stage musical. And Utena had its premiere as a musical production earlier this year.

Basically, musical theater is everywhere in Japan and everyone there knows what Takarazuka is… However, in the west that’s not really the case. While most have heard the name, the actual western fans of the company and its shows is a niche within a niche. Which means that the countless influences Takarazuka have had on manga, anime and other mediums goes unnoticed or misattributed by the overseas audience.

Which is where Revue Starlight comes back into the picture. One of the commonly misattributed influences mentioned when discussing the anime series has been that it takes its style from Ikuhara’s work, often paired with pointing out that director Furukawa Tomohiro worked directly with Ikuhara in the past. It’s not hard to see why this link is established.

However, it’s not an entirely accurate link. Ikuhara has always been heavily influenced by Takarazuka in his work. From framing devices to character design to even storylines. He’s happily borrowed from Japan’s favourite musical theater over and over, as many others do. This isn’t a secret of course, creators are happy to admit to such influences as mentioned earlier.

As such, when Revue Starlight directly bases its framing device, character designs and its storyline entirely on Takarazuka, it’s not the show borrowing from Ikuhara, it’s tapping into the original source that Ikuhara too tapped into before it. It’s not a chain of influences, it’s a direct tie back to where it all began.

Even visually, the anime is invoking Takarazuka more than anything else. The school uniforms at Seishou Musical Academy is literally modeled after the Takarazuka’s school uniform. The choreography on stage is modeled after how battles are depicted within Takarazuka stage shows. Even the stage itself uses classic Takarazuka staples any fan will instantly recognize.

This becomes even more obvious when you look at the project as a whole. Revue Starlight is, first and foremost, about theater. The first medium it used to tell its story was a stage musical, directed by former Takarazuka writer and director Kodama Akiko and written by stage writer Kaori Miura and Nakamura Kanata. Every voice actress for the nine main characters of the anime also play their roles on stage, most of them being stage actresses in the first place.

Revue Starlight is all about Japan’s musical theater – and it also happens to be quite critical of Takarazuka in its narrative. But that’s for another video.

I hope you enjoyed this quick guide through Takarazuka’s origins and how it connects to Revue Starlight. Next up we’ll be talking about Otokoyaku, Musumeyaku and the nature of the Top Star system. Until then, au revoir~


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s