Part Two: The Theatre
In this section, my co-author and I explore cross-dressing in the theatre, specifically all-male kabuki and all-female Takarazuka Revue, how these productions queer our views of the gender binary, and how the main character of The Rose of Versailles disrupts tropes about women cross-dressing as men. Part 1 here.
Because of the various issues involved in translating the slang and vocabulary of gender, a reader might be wondering about the applicability of contemporary Western gender-related theory and terminology to Japan. Can we really talk about “queerness” and “gender fluidity” in the context of Japan? Is it wrong to use Western terms to describe Japanese culture?
To briefly summarize a complicated and fascinating story, Japan began to import all manner of industrial, military, civil, and medical technologies from European countries starting in the 1860s, after a certain American naval officer brought a fleet of warships into Tokyo Bay in 1852; and, from then on out, a young urbanite in Japan would have been just as familiar with Shakespeare and jazz and sexy French cinema as any inhabitant of New York or Berlin or Shanghai.
Still, one might argue that, before the widespread acceptance of nineteenth-century German medicine, with its Judeo-Christian insistence on pathologizing anything that doesn’t fit into clear binary categories, the line between “female” and “male,” as well as the line between “queer” and “straight,” was not so clear-cut in Japan. Because many schools of Confucian and Buddhist thought considered women to be inferior beings, scholars and monks would take on male apprentices (referred to as chigo) as companions with sexual benefits. Samurai warriors, manly men who spent the majority of their time with other manly men, also had little use for women, and so they devoted a great deal of attention to the cultivation of their relationships with each other, often offering their sons to their superiors as squires in order to cement their friendship. The Tale of the Heike, a military epic from the thirteenth century, is filled with tender scenes of men crying in each other’s arms in between feats of strength and bravery. This is not to say that scholars or monks or warriors were necessarily “gay” as we think of the term, as they often had wives and children and female consorts on the side, and this is also not to say that the younger partners in these relationships were characterized as effeminate or identified as queer (or as female or even as a third gender), but rather that gender and sexuality in premodern Japan did not fall naturally into an either/or style of categorization.
It is perhaps partially for this reason that gender bending in Japanese theater was so readily accepted in the Edo period, the era of peace, prosperity, and gradual urbanization that lasted from roughly 1600 to 1870. One of the most popular forms of entertainment for city dwellers was the kabuki theater, in which epic tales of swashbuckling, honor, and love were enacted by all-male casts. The actors who specialized in female roles were referred to as onnagata (女形), a word which could be translated both as “female role” and “female form.” As opposed to the theatrical context of Shakespeare’s day, in which playwrights made all sorts of jokes and innuendos concerning the fact that all of the players performing female roles were young men, onnagata were more or less accepted as women, both onstage and occasionally offstage as well. In fact, certain famous onnagata were praised by their contemporaries as being more beautifully feminine than actual women, and many of the famous woodblock prints that have come down to us from the Edo period portray not physically female courtesans but rather onnagata performing the dramatic roles of female courtesans.
We don’t mean to suggest that gender roles were not clearly defined in the Edo period, because they most certainly were. Cross-dressing was also not something that respectable people did, and kabuki actors, with their slippery genders, were most certainly not respectable people in the social order of the day. Still, nobody batted an eye at male actors performing female roles and loving men, or at the men (and women) who enjoyed watching male actors performing female roles and loving men.
All of this changed, however, with the rising popularity of Western-style theater around the turn of the twentieth century, when prominent theater troupes began casting female actors to play female roles onstage, a process that was referred to as “straightening” theater (seigeki). Aided by the emerging medium of cinema, female actors quickly became extremely popular, both among adult audiences and among legions of young female fans who wanted to become actresses themselves.
The Takarazuka Revue
The Takarazuka Revue draws on some of this history of kabuki, except all the roles are played by women, who are divided into male roles, called otokoyaku (男役), and female roles, musumeyaku (娘役). The musical revues they perform tend to be Western musicals, but they also perform plays based on Japanese literature and theatre as well as in-house plays produced specifically for them. There’s also a lot of feathers and glitter.
Students at the Takarazuka music school are sorted into otokoyaku and musumeyaku in their second year. There’s a height requirement and vocal range requirement, of course, but after the division in their second year, which requires hair cuts for the otokoyaku, it’s uncommon, though not unheard of, to change roles or to play a character outside of the role. The notable exception is for strong female characters, who are sometimes played by otokoyaku (Scarlett O’Hara, Empress Elisabeth of Hungary). The roles are enforced off stage as well, so as not to break the magic, and the actors have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” clause regarding their sexuality and gender identity.
The musumeyaku tend to present as hyperfeminine, while the otokoyaku are more chūseibi (中性美), a beautiful androgyny leaning toward the masculine. The ideal otokoyakushould take the very best aspects of cultural femininity and cultural masculinity and combine them into the ideal “man” (ideal person)–someone who is caring, kind, gallant, heroic, romantic, good at listening and expressing emotion, attractive, cool, loving, understanding, and active.
The Rose of Versailles (BeruBara)
One of Takarazuka’s most beloved musicals is The Rose of Versailles (BeruBara), based on the 1972-73 manga by Ikeda Riyoko. The production is meta in that the main character is Oscar François de Jarjeyes, a woman who lives socially, for most intents and purposes, as a man during the years leading up to the French Revolution. (Because Oscar identifies as a woman, we’ll be using female pronouns here.) While otokoyaku don’t live as men in the way onnagata were encouraged to live as women, the role of Oscar is always played by an otokoyaku rather than a musumeyaku.
Oscar is one of our favorite characters precisely because she’s so complex and yet takes her identity in a stride. A lot of gender-focused narratives are centered around coming-of-age and coming-out stories, and while these narratives are useful, significant, and important to people beginning to discover their identities, it’s rare to see a narrative about an adult who is forced to spend time considering their identity and body but is also okay with who they are. Oscar generally doesn’t question who she is but rather if she’d be happier if she had be raised as a girl like her sisters. Would she ever be able to be happy as a nobleman’s wife instead of as Commander of the Royal Guard? She concludes that she would not.
Oscar is even more rare in that she is DFAB and DMAB: baby Oscar is declared female by the midwife, but her father, having no sons of his own, then declares Oscar will be raised as his son to inherit his title. In some narratives, like Ikeda’s later work The Window of Orpheus (「オルフェウスの窓」), a girl forced to crossdress and act as a male heir is often rightly dissatisfied because she can’t be free to be who she is, both in the sense of the personal–being able to freely express one’s gender identity and pursue romance– as well as in the sense of safety: the danger of being found out and losing one’s position or even one’s life. Typically in these stories, such as The Window of Orpheus, Twelfth Night, Victor/Victoria, Mulan, etc., the narratives of cross-dressing women involve the character wanting to pursue a romantic relationship with a straight man; however, he invariably isn’t interested in her as a man and she can’t tell him the truth because it would jeopardize her position. Often, our heroine also finds that straight woman is in love with her because she appears to be a man, but she isn’t interested in women. These narratives are often played for laughs, but they tend to be heterocentric and don’t typically allow for queer love, trans and nonbinary characters, or bi/pansexual characters.
Yet, Oscar’s narrative completely defies all of these narrative tropes. Everyone who has met Oscar more than once knows she is a woman–though she and her nurse do have to tell some people– and generally no one cares.2 Furthermore, almost everyone finds her attractive regardless of how they consider their sexuality, although the 1780s’ concept of bi/pansexuality, would have differed from our contemporary understanding. Several men and women fall in love with her, including Rosalie, Oscar’s ward, who remains in love with her even after finding out Oscar is a woman, although it’s a shock to her at first. Yet Oscar’s other admirers typically develop a crush on her knowing full well who she is.
As for Oscar herself, at one point, she does question if Count Axel von Fersen would actually notice her if she presented as more feminine, so she attends a ball in “drag” (in a dress) to find out. Unlike in other narratives, her crush on Fersen remains unrequited not because he is repulsed by her gender identity but because he’s in love with Marie Antoinette.
Another point of difference is that Oscar doesn’t eventually go back to or start living as a woman, as in many tales of temporary cross-dressing situations. She has the opportunity to marry a man (Girodelle) who wants her to quit her job and be a “normal” wife; she refuses him because she doesn’t want what he presents as an easy way out of her troubles. On the other hand, Andre, her childhood friend and former servant, who has loved her all along, eventually realizes that making Oscar into something she’s not is not actually love. It takes him more than a decade, but when he decides wants to be with her just as she is–military captain, androgynous, masculine, free to be herself–they finally begin a romantic relationship.
Oscar’s story is very much informed by the social climes of the 1970s and women’s liberation (and failed liberation), but once of the most important lessons we learn from her is that no matter how you identify, you get to choose what sort of person you are, whether that’s a man who likes make-up or a femme androgyne or a dapper nonbinary person.
For all of these reasons, Oscar was and still is an iconoclast among characters in narratives about cross-dressing. As such, she was hugely inspirational in the creation of characters that buck gender norms, including Tenoh Haruka (Sailor Moon), Tenjo Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena), and Fujioka Haruhi (Ouran High School Host Club); and in new ways of characterizing cross-dressing women characters.
1. Note that these are not the same terms as those used in the context of kabuki theater. The yaku (役) of otokoyaku and musumeyaku connotes “role,” as opposed to the gata (形) of onnagata, which connotes “form” or “shape.” To simplify many years’ worth of discourse and ideology, the idea is that, while a man can effectively become a woman due to his high level of skill and artistic mastery, a woman can only temporarily play the role of a man, and only in the limited sphere of the theater stage. The 1993 documentary film Dream Girls, directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, explores the strongly gendered aspects of such ideologies. A brief and insightful review of the film that addresses these issues can be found on Erica Friedman’s blog Okazu.
2. When Oscar leaves the Royal Guard and joins the army as an officer, the insubordination she experiences is partially gender-motivated but also partially class-motivated since she is part of the nobility and her men are commoners.