Yuri 101 | Setting the Stage

Crossdressing theater is a centuries-old practice in Japan, as it is in Western Europe. Traditional and aristocratic noh plays always boasted male actors and Kabuki, a genre more popular among the lower classes, first emerged as an all-female mode of theater before it was banned due to an association with sex work, leading young boys to take the role of women. They, too, were banned with time due to the link with prostitution, leaving adult men the sole actors in the genre. With the Meiji Restoration, Kabuki became a symbol of Japanese pride, and though debates around it raged, it was accepted as an important cultural tradition. At the same time, with the bourgeoisification of the nation and the initial sightings of spectacle-culture, young girls and women were making attempts to break into the historically segregated theater industry. Afraid of the “degenerate schoolgirl” and desperate to maintain the “good wife, wise mother” dynamic, railroad baron Ichizo Kobayashi devised an all-female, modern mirror of kabuki: the Takarazuka Revue.

As you might expect given its place in this series and my comments in the last episode, Takarazuka’s success both derived from and contributed to Class S, with the one major difference of being a top-down organization created by one man, rather than a bottom-up movement coming from many young women. Emerging from the same general milieu, its entire system, boasting a two-year school dedicated to training up girls to be ready for the stage, relied heavily on middle-class support. This class composition, along with Kobayashi’s place as a rail baron, meant that early Takarazuka was born with a number of restrictive tendencies. The first was a focus on transience and future marriage.

As said in the last episode, the shoujo was seen as a dangerous category, causing the necessity for good girls who learned properly before marrying off and birthing children, an important step for the reproduction of Japanese labor as it was in all capitalist nations. Kobayashi was a strong believer in the ‘good wife, wise mother’ dynamic, and so he focused on a few key things in order to encourage the girls in the Revue to eventually go down the wedded path. First, he established an informal guideline declaring that none of the performers could work for too long. By the time you were 25, and certainly by the time you were 30, you were “persuaded” to leave. To some degree, this was influenced by the need to preserve the youthful image so vital to the company’s appeal, but in a time where women struggled to marry later in life, Kobayashi saw this rule, which has since been relaxed, as essential to making sure the Revue was not seen as degenerate or harmful.

Second, he was desperate to avoid the association with lesbianism, an association which the company still makes sure not to draw too closely to, in spite of its prominence in the common imagination. At a time where crushing on other girls was the norm, not the exception, the otokoyaku, or male-players of Takarazuka were an obvious target. This became even clearer as the Revue developed. Initially all performers wore the classical white face-paint of the Japanese theatrical arts, but with time, this faded in favor of Western-style grease-paint. It would still be difficult to call performers “realistic” by any stretch, but any latent attractiveness was certainly more noticeable after this change. Around the same time came a shift wherein the otokoyaku, who had previously tied their hair up when performing their roles, began wearing it shorter, in bobs or even in legitimately masculine manners. Initially this caused a great fuss, though it was quickly accepted and became the norm from then onwards.

Similarly, there were a number of explicit incidents and issues involving homosexuality’s “intrusion” into the hallowed stage. From the very beginning, female fans had shown interest in the performers, with fan mail dedicated to specific stars often stating their interest in them, interest which many feared would be reciprocated. On its own, this may perhaps have been allowed, though the wartime censors would not have been pleased. However, Takarazuka was not alone, and its success inspired similar troupes in other areas of the country. A famous case in the early 30s involving the attempted double suicide of another company’s musumeyaku and a fan, who styled herself as an otokoyaku, shook the industry, and came at a time where Class S was already beginning to be demonized as leading girls astray, down a path of “true homosexuality.” While Takarazuka itself was not directly involved in this incident, it received much of the blame via generalization, further encouraging Kobayashi’s attempts to distance it from the lesbian image.

As the war picked up, this skepticism only increased. Kobayashi was a supporter of empire, taking up a position as Minister of Commerce and Industry in 1940 as a member of the so-called Imperial Rule Assistance Association. During this time, the Revue made attempts to add male performers, though these were unpopular, and also went so far as to ban the actresses from interacting with the fans so as to prevent dangerous relationships from forming in the first place.

Most notable when it comes to their imperial impact, however, is the direct role that Takarazuka played in the war. Like Yoshiya, the performances put on by the company were heavily censored, and like Yoshiya, they were sent overseas, used to show the importance of maintaining Asian solidarity within the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Plays began to focus on Japanese girls and women as leading lights for the rest of Asia, outright echoing the lines coming from explicit imperial propaganda.

Takarazuka served and continues to serve as a theater meant to sell the idea of dreams, of youthful perfection performed by wondrous young women. But, as always, this relies on capital, and as was the case last time, Japanese capital could not but support the Japanese Empire. In fact, as a company rather than a more horizontal movement, its marriage with capital was even stronger. Early Takarazuka played a leading role in opening up the stage for women to perform, at a time where many Japanese commentators still believed acting was a man’s job. But its class character prevented it from echoing the revolutionary tones of other theaters, and in fact tied it to a reactionary direction.

Ultimately, Takarazuka, unlike Class S, did not lay out the entire foundations for yuri, hence this episode’s shorter runtime. But as will be seen in future installments, it certainly had a role to play, especially in canonizing yuri’s specific form of the boyish lesbian. As part of the wider Class S dynamic, it demonstrates once again the blinding loyalty of capital to empire, and the necessary linking between capital and the limited freedom of bourgeois girls. But as promised last time, things are not all bad. Not only has Takarazuka changed many of its policies for the better in the decades since, but its descendants in the yuri realm played a vital role, particularly when it comes to works from the godfather of manga.

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