Every spring, among the entrance announcements of top universities in Japan, the unique all-women Takarazuka Music School makes headlines. Takarazuka Revue is an all-female theatrical company founded in 1913 by then Hankyu Railways President Ichizo Kobayashi to initially promote their hot spring resort in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture.
It is a world of girls’ fantasy come to life - the glamorous musical, charismatic characters, beaming spotlights, the illuminated grand staircase where the star descends without looking down, massive colorful feather decorations on their backs, prince-like boys in a shojo-manga (girl’s comics), a perfect man - all exist in Takarazuka shows. It is such an esteemed spectacle that many young girls fall in love on their first visit and from then on, dream to be up on that stage.
In order to perform in the theater, you must enroll in Takarazuka Music School. This exclusive school remains veiled in secrecy and is highly mysterious to outsiders. It is not easy to gain entrance to at all. Let me guide you through the exotic world of Takarazuka Music School, a prerequisite gateway to stardom.
The small window of opportunity for this two-year school is from age 15 to 18. With the ratio of applicants to placement as high as their historical record of 48.27, these Japanese girls live their teenage years striving to get in, with many destined to experience heartbreaking setbacks. It’s common to see girls bawling like it’s the end of their world in front of the panel of admission every year. Last year, only 40 got in out of 915 applicants. Some apply just for the sake of it - it may be that they have taken ballet lessons, or a few vocal classes, or just gained interest in the revue. It’s very rare that these applicants miraculously get in - perhaps they have exceptionally beautiful looks or were born with the aura of a star.
Most candidates go through a strict prep school operated across the nation, and are trained to enter as they start from a very early age. These training schools teach students choir exercises, classical singing, modern dance, tap dance, ballet, Japanese classic dance, vocal training, interview skills and so on. There are mock examinations every year at the prep school where former Takarazuka stars participate as judges since many of these schools are run by graduates. There are only four chances in a girl’s life to apply for the Takarazuka Music School. Unsuccessful candidates on their first trial at age 15, will continue lessons at prep school until age 18, which is not a cheap investment - training schools cost approximately 1.5 million yen per year.
Whether after years of mundane training, or for some lucky ones, no prepping, the entrance announcements decide their future. Once the successful candidates make it into their dream school, yokasei, or freshmen, go through another round of grim training. They must follow the academy’s intensely strict regulations that extend even outside the school. These are encapsulated in their school motto, “Purity, Honesty, Beauty,” and are subject to severe discipline and hierarchical rules.
The curriculum for a school day doesn't sound outrageous. First class starts at 9 a.m., then a 50-minute lunch break after the second class, followed by five or six more classes that finish around 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. There is an intermediate 15-minute break in between for girls to change into for example, a whole ballet outfit or full set of yukata (summer kimono), not to mention going the toilet, so they have to be quick. To add to the intimidation, they have school six days a week. All classes are intense and yokasei endure rigorous school lives. (I doubt I could survive.)
To start off a what seems like an endless list, yokasei must wake up hours earlier to clean the school meticulously for an hour and a half before their classes start. We’re not talking about normal house keeping - just think 10 times the norm, everyday. Once yokasei are assigned a location, they are to clean the same place for the whole academic year. That may be the entrance, the bathroom or cleaning all musical instruments. All objects must be placed in the exact spot, replaced not even a single millimeter from where they were before. Honkasei, or upperclassmen, will check everyday and if there is the smallest dust or a piece of hair, the one in charge will be harshly scorned and directed thoroughly. If any of their classmates are being scolded, all the other classmates and class committee apologize in unison. To avoid this situation, yokasei occasionally stick duct tape in the back of their skirts to be prepared at all times to clean dust or hairs on the floor promptly.
The school is located on the Hankyu Dentetsu Line which many fans make use of, so all students must bow to the train as it arrives on the platform. Freshmen, on top of that, must greet, standing straight and tall, their upperclassmen if ever they meet them, or even see them from a distance, and bow until they can no longer be seen. Yokasei must take the very last car on trains on their way to school (being in front of senpai, or seniors, is prohibited) and there is no talking allowed. They walk in rows of two without talking to classmates. At school, yokasei should not take short cuts in the hallways and walk along the walls, so as not to be in the way of honkasei.
Uniforms are precise - gray dress, gray hat, white socks in determined length and black shoes. You would think they can wear anything else outside of school, but no, they are prohibited from wearing any colors other than navy, black, white and brown. Wearing colorful outfits and accessories of any kind are not allowed.
Many students live in the dormitory and they have regulations under the roof as well. Basically, making loud noises is forbidden. Talking in the hallway and noisily walking up and down the stairs are taboo. A microwave bell is considered loud, so it’s common sense for them to wait and take before the countdown. What about alarm clocks? Placing them under their pillows and waking up on the first ring is the standard operating procedure. Did I mention yokasei have an average three hours of sleep?
There are fun times in their school life too, for example field trips. They are an important part of school life and also when they are free from the mundane routine. Hokkaido is one their popular sightseeing spots. An annual school festival is held, but this is somewhat different from other high schools, as all students perform to reveal their achievements. Uniquely, tickets for this school festival are sold to the public, and some core fans use this opportunity to discover a diamond in the rough before their debut.
Needless to say, by the end of freshman year, they develop a sense of joint responsibility, learn to become patient, obedient and well-mannered. Their dedication is tremendous.
After the first school year, the teachers decide whether they will perform as otokoyaku (male roles) or musumeyaku (female roles), since all characters are performed by women. Consequently, the training shifts according to the gender as in posture and proper form of performance. Otokoyaku are more praised because they tend to be the main stars of the shows and their fan base is women. Otokoyaku must wear pants even off stage, so some are thrilled, or perhaps nervous, to wear skirts when they end their Takarazuka life.
Other aspects Takaraziennes look forward to after leaving stardom may be wedding bells. Falling in love is not acceptable during their school years going into their performing years, because they spend most of their 20s and 30s in utter dedication to the world of Takarazuka Revue. Hence, it is said that they marry later on in their lives, or the rate of single women are high. Another happy aspect of post-Takarazuka life, is visiting hair salons. While part of the revue, hairstyles must match the characters in play; in other words, they don’t have the freedom to change hairstyles while a Takarazienne.
Graduates are divided into five main troupes of about 80 performers: hana (flower), tsuki (moon), yuki (snow), hoshi (star) and sora (cosmos). The performances usually consist of a play and a show. The “play” part is based on a well-known award-winning Japanese or overseas musical, novel, theatrical play or original musical.
When the students make their debut after all the aforementioned hard training, they win much more than the ultimate prestige. Most former top performers become famous actresses and pursue a lasting career in the entertainment business. Many actresses have built impressive post-Takarazuka careers.
Despite having been around for over a century, some Japanese have not seen the Takarazuka performance. It is a marvelous world with lots of shimmering shining and sweeps you away from reality. If you have not seen a show, I highly recommend that you see one, especially now that you know what the girls go through to make it onto the stage.
Takarazuka performs about 1,500 shows a year and boasts a performing crew of more than 400 fabulous Takaraziennes. Thousands of girls are dreaming to be the star of the next shows as you read this, and are going to be crying one way or another, if their dreams come true or not.
For more information, visit the school's website.© Japan Today