Despite Japan's sluggish economy and a widespread reluctance to spend, thousands of fans continue to shell out large sums to see a famous all-female theater troupe. The ensemble, called Takarazuka, captivates audiences nearly 90 years after its founding.
Takarazuka's top star, Jun Shibuki, sings longingly of romance. The song is part of the troupe's new hit show, called "The End of the Long Spring," which recently opened in Tokyo. As usual, the singing and dancing group's two-thousand-seat theater in Tokyo's posh Ginza district sells out almost daily. Another theater, in western Japan, also does brisk business.
Japan's economy is ailing, with the stock market trading near a 19-year low. Even so, Takarazuka's many fans travel across the country to see the troupe, buying tickets for up to $90 a seat.
Twenty-two-year-old Yuki Asano, a fan since her early teens, explains why she saves her money to buy seats to the revue. "They have everything women dream for - beauty, and just everything," she says. "I like the dancing ballet, singing, the musical. They have everything here. It's amazing."
Takaruzka's shows are akin to big, splashy Broadway musicals. The sets are elaborate, the costumes, extravaganzas of fabric, sequins and lace.
The troupe, which is divided into six ensembles that play in Japan and travel abroad, performs with its own orchestras. A team of writers adapts and creates exotic musicals and operettas about love and adventure in glamorous settings, such as 19th-century Europe.
But the main draw of Takarazuka is that all the roles, both male and female, are played by women. "When I play a male role, I believe my job is to sell a dream," says performer Jun Shibuki. "I picture my ideal man, who may not exist in reality, and personify him."
Troupe members say playing male roles convincingly is one of the most challenging aspects of their work. The actresses are selected through a highly competitive series of auditions and interviews. They train for two years at the Takarazuka Music School, where they learn to sing, dance, act and specialize in either male or female roles. Those chosen to play men also learn masculine mannerisms and movements. They are taught to sing with deep, male voices.
Takarazuka fans are fascinated by these talented, androgynous performers. Some audience members say they personify the ideal man. "I think Takarazuka is so popular because what women look for in men is beauty," says one fan. "Women are looking for beautiful men who do not exist in reality, but in a dream."
Fan Yuki Asano agrees. "Guys cannot express what women are looking for. Because some guys are too buff, some guys are too masculine," she says. "We are not looking for the buff or masculine thing, we are just looking for beauty, and that is what they have."
It may sound like an unusual reason to attend a musical, but the widespread popularity of Takarazuka is undeniable. Since the troupe began performing in 1914, it has attracted legions of loyal fans, most of them women, who buy everything from magazines to cookies to key rings bearing the group's logo. While many are housewives, others are students or career women. They come from every age and income bracket.
The idea of an all-female revue was the brainchild of Japanese magnate Ichizo Kobayashi, who owned railways and department stores. He started the troupe to attract customers, who would take his trains to watch the shows.
The group quickly became a sensation in the patriarchal Japan of the early 20th century, where women were largely absent from the stage. At the time Takarazuka was founded, female performers were maligned as defiled women who led evil lives. Even now, all the parts in Japan's traditional Noh and Kabuki theaters are still played by men.
The formula for Takarazuka - an all-female cast, syrupy musicals, and dazzling sets and costumes, remains a winner after all these years. Some theater critics say the shows have provided generations of Japanese women with a brief respite from the grind of daily life.