Between The Revues – Part 2: What Makes a Top Star?

Original Script, for those who prefer to read:

The main character cast of Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight consist of nine actresses all fighting for the chance to become Top Star, the most radiant of titles for an actress to obtain. A title lifted directly from the Takarazuka Revue.

But what exactly is a Top Star? Who gets to be a Top Star? What does the Top Star system itself entail? What exactly are the expectations and requirements for an actress in Takarazuka Kagekidan should they want to become Top Star? In fact, what are the requirements to even be an actress there in the first place?

Don’t worry, I have all your answers and more ready for you. Welcome back to Between The Revues, today we’re talking about what makes a Top Star.

What Makes A Top Star?

Before we talk about the specifics of the Top Star system in place at Takarazuka, we need to talk about the actresses themselves. As we mentioned last week, every performer on stage at a Takarazuka production is a woman, regardless of a role’s gender. However, that’s not to say that any woman can play a role of any gender. In fact, there’s quite strict rules to this.

Women who play the role of men are known as Otokoyaku, whereas women who play the role of women are known as Musumeyaku. And while there are exceptions, the line between these two types of actresses is drawn with a thick permanent marker.

When applying to Takarazuka’s academy as a teenage girl, you will first have to pass a rigorous audition process. Should you pass, you will quite quickly be labeled as either Otokoyaku or Musumeyaku depending on your voice, height, demeanor and other outwardly values. While there’s a lot of androgynous elements to Takarazuka, the definition of what makes a man and what makes a woman in the audition process is firmly established by the common gender binary norms.

These days, girls hoping to land a role as an Otokoyaku will likely come prepared with a short haircut, which will otherwise be forced upon them once they’re assigned said role. Though that wasn’t always the case as for the first few decades of Takarazuka shows women would simply hide their long hair under wigs instead.

While passing the audition in any capacity is impressive and worthy of celebration, passing the audition as an Otokoyaku is particularly impressive. And you might wonder… Why is that more impressive than passing as a Musumeyaku if they’re both key components of the show?

Well, it’s quite simple. Only Otokoyaku can become Top Star.

The Top Star system was introduced in 1981 with the very first actress holding the prestigious title being Daichi Mao from Tsukigumi. As such she was cast as the leading man in every production Tsukigumi held until her retirement in 1985.

But what about Musumeyaku then? Don’t they have an equivalent role? Well, not exactly. When an Otokoyaku become Top Star, they are paired with a Musumeyaku who become their co-lead in all productions. This Top Musumeyaku is billed together with the Top Otokoyaku and traditionally retire together with her, with some exceptions. But the title of Top Star and representing the troupe as a whole only belongs to the Otokoyaku.

There have been exceptions to Otokoyaku only having one Musumeyaku as their partner, but in general one couple takes the top, shine brighter than anyone, and retire together once they’ve spent a few years in the spotlight.

While there’s no defined requirement of how long a pair of actresses have to have been part of the revue before becoming Top Star, one rarely takes the title without performing for at least two decades. It’s a hard effort that requires non-stop work, improvement and most importantly a desire to claim the title. Only the best of the best will be Top Star and they will pay any price necessary to become it.

Which is where we return to Revue Starlight where there’s a quite obvious question. If only Otokoyaku become Top Star, then how come all the girls in Revue Starlight play female characters on stage?

Without going into too much detail, as I’m saving that for a later video, the reason to make the cast of Revue Starlight perform as women is rooted in Takarazuka’s social politics. After all, as I mentioned last episode, Revue Starlight is quite critical of Takarazuka despite being directly inspired by it. So instead of looking at the gender of their roles, let’s look at how Revue Starlight tackles becoming the Top Star.

Every actress, or stage girl to use Revue Starlight’s preferred terminology, is brought into an audition where they must prove they can outshine another stage girl on stage. These battles are depicted as musical performances mixed with choreographed combat, all of it based on the personalities and emotions of the characters involved. The battle ends once a stage girl has lost her cape, at which the winning stage girl increases in ranking until she can eventually claim the title as Top Star – at which anything is within her grasp.

The battles and struggles to overcome each other splits the girls apart, hurt their relationships and even start tearing up reality itself from the pressure and fear that surrounds the girls throughout the pursuit of becoming Top Star. Because only the best of the best will be Top Star and they will pay any price necessary to become it.

And this is where we have to talk about Tendou Maya. This is her. This is Tendou Maya.

At the start of the series, Tendou Maya is the highest rank student in the 99th Starlight Class. She’s partnered with Saijou Claudine, the second higher ranked student, who she happily leads forward as her muse. When it comes to claiming the title of Top Star, Maya is unmatched by practically anyone, as her prodigy status and dominant nature makes her a perfect fit to outclass the rest with ease.

In a way, Maya serves as a series antagonist due to how perfectly she fits the mold of a Top Star. While Revue Starlight doesn’t have explicit Otokoyaku and Musumeyaku roles, Maya is the one who takes the lead with Claudine and dons the suit in the relationship, so to say. Her natural talent is depicted further when she fights our main character, Aijou Karen, in episode three of the anime.

Maya defends her position with ease from Karen’s attacks, but more importantly, she uses the stage as a weapon. She is controlling the stage, from scenery changes to breaking apart the ground they stand on. A recurring motif is a flight of stairs, which Maya ascends, stand proudly of and also utilize as a weapon in her fight.

This is no coincidence, as one of Takarazuka’s main staples is a grandiose flight of stairs for the actresses to ascend or descend. Almost every major production uses such stairs, to the point where including them is a simple way to tell a Japanese audience “this is a Takarazuka reference.”

For another example of this, look at the character of Kenjou Akira, or Cure Chocolat, from Kirakira Precure A La Mode. Her transformation sequence makes use of Takarazuka-esque stairs, as she is based on the classic image of an Otokoyaku. The stairs even make an appearance in the second ending theme, exclusively for Chocolat to use.

Maya being able to wield the stairs and the scene as a weapon no different than her rapier is a testament to how she, as a character, defines Takarazuka’s Top Star system and the expectations and pressure put upon actresses. Defeating her is to defeat the system itself.

That is Tendou Maya.

But if we’re going to talk about the natural Top Star of Revue Starlight then we also need to talk about the girl who could never become Top Star despite her best efforts. The girl that happens to be my favourite character, Isurugi Futaba.

At first glance, Futaba is a perfect Otokoyaku candidate. A tomboy who leads and escorts her partner, Hanayanagi Kaoruko, without question, short hair, bit of an attitude but still cool, calm and collected. And she’s also a fast learner, passing audition exams for the academy despite never having done theater until Kaoruko decided she should.

However, there’s no way Futaba would pass as an Otokoyaku candidate in Takarazuka’s auditions. For one simple reason that she can not control, namely her height. Futaba is the shortest girl in the series, always looking somewhat out of place as a result. This isn’t coincidence of course, the anime’s very first episode talks about the preferred height difference of men and women, directly alluding to Takarazuka’s standards.

Futaba is also a pushover, always letting others go before her no matter her own desires. There is a moment where it looks like she’ll put her desire to become Top Star before her relationship with Kaoruko, but naturally, that’s not how it goes. Futaba could never become Top Star because she doesn’t qualify to even be Otokoyaku and she lacks the conviction to put herself before others.

This is why she loses every fight she’s in. She loses against Kaoruko, against Claudine and against Kaoruko again – if we count the anime and stage musical separately. She can’t win a fight to be Top Star because she was never allowed to fight in the first place.

As should be clear by now, the Top Star system is the source of pain for most of the characters in the series, as it forces them to fight and push onward even when they can’t. All to stand above those they’re supposed to stand beside on stage. This is why Karen, our main character, is specifically seeking to end the concept of being a Top Star and letting everyone “Become Starlight” as her goal.

It’s a scathing critique from the pressure Takarazuka puts on its actresses, one that could arguably only come from someone who worked within the company itself like playwright/director Kodama Akiko who directed the original stage musical and even serves as key member of the Japan 2.5-Dimensional Musical Association. Karen is her, and the other creative forces, way of telling everyone to stop pushing performers to outshine their own fellow performers as it causes nothing but harm.

We see this in the reality of Takarazuka as well as toxicity is not an unfamiliar element within the company. Takarazuka Academy was sued multiple times by a former student in 2009 and 2010 due to having allowed bullying and mistreatment. Despite the court finding the school guilty of mistreating the former student, they proceeded to ignore the court ruling. It wasn’t until the third lawsuit, which was settled out of court, that Takarazuka decided to compensate the former student, though she was still not allowed back into the school or company.

Outside the school things are certainly not a breeze either. Author and sociologist Masaki Ukai argued in 1995 that Takarazuka Kagekidan’s ability to self-censor their history due to their big influence and popularity and to a degree doe-eyed fans is a major concern as it’s the reason we haven’t seen countless books discussing corruption and scandals within the company. We’ve seen this sanitizing of reality in regards to Takarazuka putting extreme limitations on their actresses through contracts and more infamously, erasing connections between themselves and homosexuality in Japan.

But again, the subject of female homosexuality in Japan and how it relates to Takarazuka is a subject for another day. And it is very much a subject we will get to…

*sigh* Oh we will get to it.

In fact, we will get to it next episode. See you then… Au revoir~

2 thoughts on “Between The Revues – Part 2: What Makes a Top Star?

  1. I’ve always been curious about the Takarazuka Review but all I’ve really known about it comes from references in anime and manga. I’d really be interested to hear about it’s links with queer culture as well, especially as this is something that – as you said – tends to be denied and erased.


  2. Thank you for making this article! Bit late to the party, but after watching Revue Starlight I was very curious about the company it was said to criticize. Having more background knowledge on the real world references in the anime makes me appreciate its critique of gender roles and competitive mindsets even more ❤


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