Taishū engeki—Entertainment for the Masses?
What do a highway robber, a samurai, and a geisha have in common? They are all played by the same actor, often at the same time, in an incredible flurry of costume change, in a contemporary form of Japanese theatre called taishū engeki. Taishū engeki, translated as vaudeville, literally, “theatre for the masses”, would be better described as a parallel world of fantasy, glitter, and manga-esque beautiful men wearing elaborate wigs and even more elaborate kimonos, who dance and gracefully sway their hips to portray women, and simultaneously do their best to seduce the overwhelmingly female audience. Taishū engeki represents an escape into a world of romances enacted through dance, of tragic love stories that somehow end well when the main character reappears in the second act as a brilliant dragon-slaying god, and of literal dances with dragons. One performance by dance troupe Gekidan Kokoro included onna-gata buyō (traditional Japanese dance performed by a man playing the part of a woman), a play about brotherly love and devotion where the glamorous actor from the first part was a not too bright young boy (depicted with snot running down his nose), more crossdressing and dancing, a few shamisen songs, a totally unexpected breakdancing piece, and a collaboration with Iwami Kagura—a famous group from Shimane who performs sacred dances in association with various Shinto rituals.
Despite being able to combine theatrical skills with dance and acrobatic feats, taishū engeki is seen as a minor theatrical genre, often included in the category of folk arts (Kurata 42), or “low art” intended merely for fun and entertainment” (Endo 151). Although the name would indicate that is addresses a wider audience (which may have been the case decades ago, when cheap entertainment was not so readily available as it is today), taishū engeki caters to a specific category of people. The performers are organised in small itinerant troupes who spend about one month in a specific location, putting on two shows daily—one starting at noon, and one in the evening. In most cases, the show has two parts: one is a play, followed by a free program of dancing, acrobatic features, and even playing instruments such as drums or shamisen. The audience itself consists of two categories: the local people, living in the vicinity of the small theatres where performances are held, and who might attend each new show two or three times, and the fans, who follow their favourite actor from place to place to the limit of their time and financial resources.
When it comes to performing arts, Japan’s most famous form of theatre is definitely kabuki: a performative genre highly appreciated by the Japanese and whose extravagant costumes and make-up, as well as exaggerated gestures eliminate some of the language barriers and make it (at least to a certain degree) comprehensible to non-Japanese speakers. Besides kabuki, noh (a highly ritualised form of theatre characterised by its use of masks) and bunraku (puppet theatre) are most often mentioned together, popular both within and outside the borders of Japan as entertainment and objects of scholarly research.
As a scholar of Japanese studies, I had learned about these three categories in my first year as an undergraduate student, but it took me over ten years in Japan to discover taishū engeki, something that Robert Schneider and Nathan Schneider (256) ironically call “a weed in Japan’s exquisite garden of classical theatre and a living fossil in the detritus of Asian modernity”. Is taishū engeki really a fossil or a weed accidentally left on the stage of classical theatre? Its faithful fans would beg to differ, and so would the accomplishments of some troupes, who are entirely self-sufficient, renting the venues where they perform and travelling with their own light and sound systems, as well as hundreds of exquisite costumes and wigs. To give just an example, Aotsuki Shinya, the leader of Gekidan Kokoro, told me that he possesses more than two hundred wigs, and mid-September this year will attempt to perform 120 different dances, with different costumes, during the three days that will celebrate his birthday.
In contrast with noh or kabuki, where each gesture is highly stylised and must be performed in a pre-defined order, in a set context, taishū engeki is flexible: plays are based on known stories, but the plot is overly simplified, so that the audience can focus on the main characters and the way they perform more than on the storyline, and the second act is actually the main attraction of the show, when the actors can showcase their special skills to the delight of the audience.
Kabuki developed in the seventeenth century, and it was aimed at the “common people”, while “the true professionals, the performers of the [noh] and the kyōgen [comedy], began to retreat behind the curtain of refinement” (Tsubaki 4). In the twenty-first century, noh has become more of a mixture of performance and ritual, appreciated by a small number of specialists, and often staged to accompany religious manifestations. Kabuki, on the other hand, has taken its place as the most valued theatrical art, with fans and aficionados vying for the best seats (whose prices can go up to 30,000 Japanese yen, and yet are hard to procure), but taishū engeki shows no signs that it might ever reach that level of popularity. In 1995 Marilyn Ivy saw it as a “discourse of the vanishing”, an art that might disappear as, while “it appears to carry on an unarguably Japanese knowledge” (239), it has failed to create a “boom” or a vast audience. While novelty is part of the performance, it seems to somehow be not new enough, not entrancing enough. The actors are talented, creative, and versatile, but they do not attain the fame level of their kabuki counterparts.
Despite all these, as an anthropologist, I could not help but wonder why taishū engeki has not attracted more scholarly interest. The studies on this topic, both in Japanese and English, are far less numerous than those on butoh, for example, “a post-modern dance genre” which has been the focus of both practical and theoretical interest on the part of Japanese studies specialists. To give just an example, in his book on Japanese theatre, Benito Ortolani has a subchapter on butoh, but does not even mention taishū engeki.
My first encounters with taishū engeki were due to a class project—I had started teaching a class on theatre as ritual performance, and wanted my students to have a first-hand experience. The project was a success: students who had shown no enthusiasm at all when reading the syllabus were mesmerised once the performance had begun, to the level that they had attended shows by themselves, and even started following the actors on various social networks. Taishū engeki surpasses all expectations of a first-time viewer. It follows a canon, just like kabuki, but that canon is audience-oriented, so without having ever been part of that audience, it is difficult to imagine what will happen on stage.
As mentioned above, each performance has two parts: the first one is a play, whose content changes during the one-month performance, usually based on historical events familiar to the audience, but not restricted to that, an intermission during which the leader of the troupe greets the audience, talks about the schedule for the remainder of the month, and promotes the merchandise available for sale (T-shirts, fans, boxes of sweets), followed by a free-style show where the performers are free to display their best skills. Photography is not allowed during the first part—and this may be due to the fact that most troupe leaders create their own plays using the vast available materials, and are reluctant to share that with other troupes—but is encouraged during the second part. Video taking is forbidden at all times.
Crossdressing is a significant part of the performance, with men playing the part of women who are attractive to other women, and women playing the part of men who also attract women. The actresses, however, never become the star of the troupe. Just like in the case of Takarazuka Theatre, where the otoko yaku (women playing the male roles) receive significantly more appreciation than the female counterparts, the heavily made-up male actors of taishū engeki represent the dreamy ideal of their dedicated fans. Each performing group is centered around one male actor who is representative of the troupe—usually the leader or the leader’s son, and who gathers a dedicated fan base composed of women (most of whom are middle-aged or older). These women try to attend as many shows as they can, literally showering their favourite actor with money.
The few available studies on taishū engeki tended to focus on two major aspects: crossdressing (mostly of the onnagata—men playing women—type) and on the money the actors receive while on stage.
Fig. 1: An actor on the Gofukuza Stage (Osaka) displaying money gifts, 13 June 2018.
Schneider and Schneider, for example, looked into how gender is performed, and what rules are applied when performing gender. Their conclusion? There are no clear rules, as “taishū engeki plays with gender, but it also quite simply plays gender” (262). My own interest was not in the actual gender performed, but in the most pervasive and permanent element of all taishū engeki performances: seduction. Those who go to see these shows may do so for mere amusement—and their expectations are never disappointed, as the costumes are complex and flamboyant, and the performers are skilled dancers, but those who go faithfully do so due to their admiration for a certain actor. The first act (the historical play) is a convention where the star appears slightly more human—less make-up, sometimes performing the role of a man—always strong and masculine, which is quite an artistic feat seeing that even in the role of a man, the actors will wear specific make-up and false eyelashes.
The Takarazuka Revue, an all-female group founded in 1914, has a large and consistent fan base made-up almost entirely of women who fall in love with the actress playing the main male roles—a phenomenon explained by the desire to temporarily live in a fantasy world. The difference between the Takarazuka actresses and the taishū engeki actors is that the former do not aim to seduce, but to invite the audience into a dream world, while the latter’s goal is to fully entrance.
Regardless of the gender they play, the taishū engeki stars create erotic characters, just like their kabuki precursors, where, as Samuel L. Leiter (212) puts it, “eros remained primary”. Dressed in kimonos of intricate patterns that go far outside the lines of tradition, and are representative of the creative spirit of the performer, using make-up which completely transforms their physiognomies through the heavy use of eyeliner, glitter, false eyelashes, and wearing exquisite wigs, the actors invite the audience into a dream world where the Fairy Godmother gave the best dress to the prince, not the princess.
For hundreds if not thousands of years, the folktales focussed around the image of a beautiful prince, the kalos kagathos hero (beautiful and virtuous, the ancient Greek ideal) who takes the maiden from distress and into a happily ever after. Taishū engeki heroes switch perspectives: it is not Prince Charming, but Princess Charming, an utterly beautiful creature who enchants the female audience by being the impossible. Princess Charming represents an embodiment of the best possible features—beauty, glamour, grace, sex appeal, elegance—and none of the negative ones—lack of manners, roughness, insensitivity. Moreover, Princess Charming is accessible. For a mere 2,000 yen, anybody can spend three hours in her company, and shaking her hand starts at a similarly low price—2,000 or 3,000 yen for a trinket bought during the intermission, to hand over as a gift during the performance.
Fig. 2: Aotsuki Shinya as a romantic lady in a flowing kimono, Gofukuza, 9 July 2022.
Dressed as females, the actors move their bodies with the grace of a geisha, bat their eyelashes, smile coquettishly, and even wink at the audience. As males, they are either abandoned lovers who drown their sorrows in drink, or fierce warriors dancing with masks and swords. In all circumstances, they present exaggerated feminine or masculine ideals, with the difference that femininity is emphasised through the overuse of garments and accessories, while masculinity will almost always involve a certain degree of nakedness: chest, arms, legs. The reasons are both practical (showing various naked body parts would destroy the dreamy feminine beauty wrapped up in layers of cloth and glitter), and symbolic: femininity is mysterious and fragile, and thus cannot easily be revealed, while masculinity must re-assert its strength and vitality.
The body presented on stage is more of an artistic act than the performance itself, because it is there that most of the actor’s talent is poured. Creating a persona means borrowing from the “traditional” Japanese culture which includes geisha, courtesans, heavy wigs, and heavily embroidered kimonos, as well as the contemporary manga and cosplay culture. With exaggerated eyes and hairstyles as the central features of the head, the characters moving in front of the audience seem to have directly descended from (or drawn the viewers into, “Take On Me” style) the pages of a fantasy manga.
An interview with Aotsuki Shinya (stage name), leader and star of the Kokoro (“Heart”) troupe conducted on 15 June 2022, did not offer any insightful glimpses into the metamorphosis process. While acknowledging that he cannot present his true self on stage, thus using make-up to become Aotsuki Shinya, the actor did not admit to any conscious attempt of becoming attractive. In his own words, all their efforts are for the benefit of the audience, directed towards helping them have fun. “Tanoshii”, “fun” seemed to be a key concept when staging a new performance, and the reasoning behind that is easy to follow. Unlike the more elevated kabuki, a taishū engeki theatre is a small cosy place where the audience can interact quite freely with the performers, who do not shy away from showing momentarily glimpses of the face behind the mask: forgetting a line and admitting to it, laughing at a joke said by another actor, kneeling prettily to receive gifts from their fans.
Rather than gender fluid, the bodies in taishū engeki are genderless because they are not, nor do they claim to be, real. An actor on the traditional stage is a photography, or, if the setting includes fantastic elements, a painting of an imaginable universe. An actor on the taishū engeki stage turns their body into a manga drawing: something that does not exist in real life, but it is highly desirable.
Kabuki actors staged eroticism by impersonating women; taishū engeki actors play with desire becoming in turns both Cinderella and the Prince.
Figs. 3 & 4: Aotsuki Shinya as a fantastic character (fig. 3) and as the god Susano-wo slaying the dragon (fig. 4).
“Fantasy, Sweet Fantasy”
Analysing the loyalty that Takarazuka actresses inspire into their fans, Makiko Yamanashi interprets it as something that goes beyond (dreams of) physical love or mere escapism, and sees it as the desire to belong to an ideal community of women—friends, sisters, mothers. While not wrong, this approach seems to gloss over the real erotic feelings and the longing for something not of this world which are most definitely present among performative arts (be they kabuki, revue, vaudeville, butoh, modern theatre) aficionados.
The men performed by the Takarazuka actresses do not exist in real life, and just as in the case of taishū engeki actors, make-up plays a crucial role. Lorie Brau even mentions an incident where an American director hired to stage a production of “West Side Story” required the actresses playing male roles to give up their false eyelashes—a change that did not last after the director left (86).
The taishū engeki actors are warriors who bring back to life the god Izanagi, the creator of Japan, who fought an army of underworld monsters, while wearing eyeliner, eyelashes, and sparkling make-up. They are completely unrecognisable without make-up, and yet changing their appearance takes approximately ten minutes, much less than it would take a drag queen to turn from ordinary man into glamorous woman (at least forty minutes). I am not mentioning here the drag queens by chance—the two types of performances are similar enough that they lead to collaborations. On 10 June 2022, the troupe Kokoro performed at the Gofukuza Theatre in Umeda in the company of five drag queens well known on the Osaka stage: Feminina, Rulu Daisy, Madame Cocco, Ozu, and Il Rosa.
One characteristic of drag performances is that they are actor-centred: they are not about the storyline, but about the performer’s creation—“channeling your inner femininity, fusing it with the male, and creating something otherworldly” (Hastings). The noticeable difference between drag and taishū engeki is that drag is actor-oriented, while taishū engeki is audience-oriented. Drag queens interact with the audiences and entertain, but the focus is internal, towards freeing something that had been developing within. Taishū engeki actors do choose their characters, of course, and have individual preferences, but this is secondary to their goal of captivating the audiences. Both categories of performers learn to re-invent their bodies, to re-create them on stage; however, in one case we witness an individual metamorphosis from real life to theatrical persona, and in the other we have one individual who can shapeshift into whatever character might work better magic on the people in front of him. Drag is about freedom while taishū engeki is about seduction.
Fig. 5: Il Rosa and two actors of the Shin troupe, Gofukuza, 10 June 2022
Taishū engeki may not be kabuki: it is not celebrated by the media or the researchers, and many people in contemporary Japanese society see it as an inferior form of entertainment. Considering the low price of the tickets and the fact that shows are seldom sold out, one might worry about its future. Nevertheless, a visit to the backstage of Gofukuza during the month when Shin was performing revealed a large room full of costumes, and another one full of wig boxes—more than two hundred, according to Aotsuki Shinya. The Shin troupe was founded five years ago, so everything was still new and shiny—a sign that the genre will not disappear any time in the near future. The same visit, when I could interact with the actors in their day-to-day attires, using their regular voices, and standing near the costumes and wigs like exhibits in a museum, made one more thing acutely clear: the fact that their performances are a fantasy world. More of a fantasy world than a kabuki performance (to remain consistent with the comparison), where the setting is clearly a setting, separate from the audience. The blurred lines between stage and audience, between performance and flirting of the taishū engeki create a tangible fantasy, where one can not only fall in love with the Prince(ss) Charming, but maybe even take them to a ball.
Brau, Lorie. “The Women’s Theater of Takarazuka”. TDR 34.4 (Winter 1990): 79-95.
Endo, Yukihide. “Reconsidering the Traveling Theater of Today’s Japan: An Interdisciplinary Approach to a Stigmatized Form of Japanese Theater.” Athens Journal of Humanities and Arts 2.3.
Hastings, Magnus. Why Drag? Hong Kong: Chronicle Books, 2016.
Ivy, Marilyn. Discourses of the Vanishing. Modernity Phantasm Japan. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Kurata, Ryosuke. “Taishū Engeki as a Show Business: Exploring the Segmentation of Customers.” Mathesis Universalis 17.2.
Leiter, Samuel L. “From Gay to Gei: The Onnagata and the Creation of Kabuki’s Female Characters.” In A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance, ed. Samuel L. Leitner. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2002. 211-229.
Ortolani, Benito. The Japanese Theatre. From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary Pluralism. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1995.
Schneider, Robert, and Nathan Schneider. “A Dive and a Dance with Kabuki Vaudeville: Taishū Engeki Comes Back!” New Theater Quarterly 36.3 (2020). 29 July 2020 <https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/new-theatre-quarterly/article/abs/dive-and-a-dance-with-kabuki-vaudeville-taishu-engeki-comes-back/BB72486E86C79B70730B6F2DB5EC0FF8>.
Yamanashi, Makiko. A History of the Takarazuka Revue Since 1914: Modernity, Girls’ Culture, Japan Pop. Leiden: Global Oriental, 2012.