For more than a century, the Takarazuka Music School has transformed thousands of young women from unpolished amateurs into accomplished singers, dancers and actors who perform in front of a sold-out audience with cheesy adaptations from Japanese manga to classic Western novels.
The school at the Japanese hot spring bath for which it is named isn't just about promoting talent, however.
Takarazuka Music School students wear masks as they walk to their graduation ceremony on March 2 in Takarazuka, western Japan, amid the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo
The school was founded by Ichizo Kobayashi, an industrialist who became the politician and president of Hankyu Railways – to this day the employer of the performers – and combines coaching in the performing arts with the demand for absolute discipline and obedience, combined with its motto: purity , Honesty, beauty.
But some kind of revolution is sweeping the school's immaculately clean corridors. Earlier this month it was said to have removed several long-standing and unwritten rules that have governed the behavior of new recruits for decades.
This includes bowing to trains passing by on the local railroad if passengers include older students; Assuming gloomy facial expressions that make you lower the corners of your mouth and limiting your vocabulary to a simple “yes”, “no” and a few other sanctioned sentences when accompanied by older students.
The dancers of the Japanese dance theater Takarazuka 1930 on the stage. Photo: Ullstein Bild / Getty Images
Upon graduation, students join one of five groups that together make up the Takarazuka Revue, which has been an integral part of Japanese theater since its first performance as a girls' operetta company in 1914, one year after Kobayashi opened the music school is.
The lavish Broadway-style productions in the theaters of Takarazuka and Tokyo draw around 2.5 million people annually – almost all women – with the most feverish veneration reserved for the headline stars who play the leading roles for men and women.
Kei Aran as Oscar Francois de Jarjayes, a captain of the royal guards in charge of Queen Marie-Antoinette who fought for Parisians during the Takarazuka theater revolution The Rose of Versailles in Tokyo in 2006. Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images
Despite reported opposition from some traditionalist students, the school has dropped outdated rules for interactions between juniors and seniors and reduced the requirement that all women have black hair to one that allows them to retain their "natural" color.
However, Tatsuya Kusaba, an essayist and expert on Takarazuka's story, disagrees with critics who say the rules blur the line between discipline and bullying.
"They've been in place for so long with the students' approval themselves, so I don't think they're a bad thing," said Kusaba, who has been a Takarazuka supporter since his first appearance as a five more than half a year ago Century.
However, the school says the changes reflect growing awareness of harassment in Japanese society – primarily against women – in entertainment, in the workplace, and in the sports world, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
The 100th group of students from Takarazuka Music School stand for photos during their admission ceremony at the school in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture on April 16, 2012. Photo: Newscom / Alamy Stock Photo
"We want to keep good traditions, but we also have to change so that we can adapt to the times," Naoya Horiuchi, a school official, told Kyodo News Agency.
Media reports speculated that pressure to relax certain rules increased after the discovery that some younger students were restricting sleep to do extra homework to impress their supervisors.
Despite the school's reputation for rigorous discipline, around 1,000 women aged 15 to 18 apply each year. Only 40 women are invited to train for two years for the right to become one of Takarazuka's “brilliant jewels”.
Patrick W. Galbraith, who teaches Japanese popular culture at Senshu University in Tokyo, attributes the strict code of conduct to its founder's desire to separate Takarazuka from the inappropriate behavior associated with kabuki and other forms of traditional theater.
Kobayashi imagined the school as a place for “healthy family entertainment” and as a final school for women from “good families”.
"The school promised not only to get her to safety, but also to be straight and tight," he said. “As Kobayashi saw it, Takarazuka and his school served to bring young women into a life of discipline and vertical relationships and to prepare them to become good women. If they were supervised in this way, they could also perform without scandal before they got married. "
While well-documented cases of harassment in the Japanese entertainment industry influenced the school's decision to abandon some of its archaic rules, Galbraith believes the school's ethos will remain intact. "Hierarchy, disciplining the performers, and threats of punishment for transgressions – they won't go anywhere anytime soon," he said.
Members of the Japanese, all-female theater group Takarazuka will perform in 2016 in Chicago in New York. Photo: Linda Vartoogian / Getty Images
Kusaba admits the changes were inevitable, but fears that by abandoning longstanding rules that inspire younger students to respect authority, the school is losing an important part of its identity.
"The more the school tries to modernize or liberalize, the more it risks losing some of the qualities that make it special, including the strict hierarchy among students," he said. "I want Takarazuka to continue to be what it is now – a place where women can make their dreams come true."