The Road to Versailles by Suzanne Kamata

Takarazuka grand theater side view with dam in frontMy husband may have been willing to pose for a photo with our daughter and Hello Kitty in order to avoid going on a stomach-churning roller coaster ride with our son, but he wasn’t about to drive two hours to see the Takarazuka Revue. The city of Takarazuka, or at least the theater and its environs, has to be one of the girliest destinations in all of Japan. I’d been intrigued by the all-female theatrical troupe since I’d first heard about them 25 years ago, just after arriving in Japan, but I’d never gotten around to attending an actual performance. When my daughter Lilia jabbed her finger at a picture of Takarazuka performers in a travel brochure and said, “Ikittai!” (“I want to go!”) I knew it would be the perfect mother-daughter excursion.

A week or so later, I meet up with my friend Claire for coffee and macaroons. I mention our plans to go see the Takarazuka Revue. Claire is about a decade younger than I, but we have a lot in common. For one thing, we are both originally from the cold part of North America. I was born and raised in Michigan, and Claire is Canadian. Both of us are long-term expatriates married to Tokushima natives. Both of us have an interest in the arts. Claire, who works as a translator and simultaneous interpreter, has given tours at the Otsuka Museum of Art and handles English communication for an international artists’ residency program in the mountains of Tokushima. Last summer, she accompanied a Japanese theater troupe to the New York Fringe Festival, and before that, she starred in an independent Japanese film as a pugilistic ex-con looking for her ex-husband. She also has a daughter, and both of them are eager to see the Takarazuka Revue.

“Why don’t we go together?” I suggest. Although I’m not a huge fan of group travel, I’ve scouted out a bus tour, which would make the journey relatively painless. We wouldn’t have to worry about driving or parking, and there would be plenty of people around to help out with my daughter’s wheelchair. I figure that it’s also a way to introduce Lilia to the viability of group travel. She’ll understand that in the future, if she wants to go on a trip, a guided tour (possibly with a personal assistant) is an option. She wouldn’t have to wait for us, her family, to plan for her and take her where she wants to go, and yet she wouldn’t be alone.

We take a look at our calendars. Claire’s daughter has ballet lessons on Saturdays, Lilia sometimes has physical therapy, and I occasionally help out with weekend English classes at my son’s school, but we finally figure out a day that’s convenient and book tickets to see “Oscar and Andre,” one of Takarazuka Revue’s signature musicals, now in revival.

In order to prepare, I borrowed the two doorstop volumes of Riyoko Ikeda’s  The Rose of Versailles from the public library. I’d taken them out once before for Lilia, and though I’d seen her perusing the pages, I figured a second going-over wouldn’t hurt. Also, I wanted to read it myself. After all, it was set in France, a country close to my heart. I’d studied French from junior high school through college, and I’d been to France four times, including an extended stay in Avignon for foreign study my junior year. I’d always imagined that I’d end up in France, but then, while teaching English in Japan, I met the man who would become my husband, and the rest is history.

The Rose of Versailles is about the impossible love between Oscar, an aristocratic girl brought up as a boy, and Andre, the poor stable hand taken in by her family. They grow up together, riding horses and fighting with swords, as boys do, and inevitably, their feelings change into something else. Oscar, who is better at fencing than Andre, is called upon to be Marie Antoinette’s personal guard. When she reluctantly goes off to Versailles, Andre follows, promising to watch over her.

First published in 1974, The Rose of Versailles has sold 12 million copies in Japan alone. It’s been translated into Chinese, Italian, Arabic, Turkish, Korean, Spanish, German and Indonesian. It’s also popular in France, where it was recently re-issued in French. In 2009, Ikeda was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France. The story has been the subject of a 40-part animated series, a live action film, and a spin-off manga series for children, Versailles Kids, also by Ikeda, which details the childhoods of the main characters, Oscar and Andre. The esteemed translator and manga expert Frederick Schodt allegedly translated the story into English years ago, before girls’ manga became as popular in the United States as it is today, but the translation was lost.

After the first 10 pages, I realize that I’ll never get to the end of the story in time for the musical. I find the animated series on the Internet, and watch the first few episodes, including one in which an androgynous bad guy dresses up as Marie Antoinette and takes her place in a kidnapping scheme. Lady Oscar, of course, spots the imposter, and manages to rescue the fourteen-year-old princess after a bout of sword-fighting.

I want Lilia to be prepared, so I urge her to take another look at the manga. She tells me that she’s already read the whole story. I have my doubts, but I don’t really know how well and how fast she is actually reading. At any rate, I don’t want to nag her about something that’s meant to be fun.

On the day of the musical, we meet up with Claire and her daughter in the parking lot at the bus station. We board with the other passengers, mostly women and girls, some who embarked in Kochi, three hours away. Lilia climbs into the bus without any help, proving that all of that practice climbing the stairs at school has been worth it, and her wheelchair is stashed in the luggage compartment of the vehicle.

The girls sit in the front seat, while we moms take the seat behind them. They’re equipped with notebooks for communication with each other, and electronic gadgets loaded with games for entertainment. I’m hoping that they’ll get to know each other without adult intervention. At seven, Claire’s daughter is six years younger than Lilia, but they can both write in Japanese. Even so, every time I peer over the seat, they seem to be in their own little worlds.

“She needs some time to get used to the idea of communicating with Lilia,” Claire says.

I understand. Lilia is the first deaf person that Claire’s daughter has ever met. It took me awhile to get used to talking with deaf people, too.

 Instead of writing notes, Lilia draws a picture of Claire’s daughter, with her long brown hair and button-up pink coat and passes it back to Claire.

As soon as the bus starts rolling, the tour guide’s spiel begins. She introduces us to our “handsome” driver, asks us to inform her if we have trouble with our seatbelts or the temperature of the bus. She passes out stickers and tells us that if we go on lots of trips with the tour company, we can redeem the stickers for pressure cookers and pineapples. Much of what she says is common sense. Nevertheless, I listen, and manage to learn a few things.

The Takarazuka Revue was the brainchild of Ichizo Kobayashi, founder of the Hankyu Corporation, who also established the first railway terminal department store in Japan. His goal was to increase rail passengers by creating an attractive tourist destination, a reason to ride the trains. Inspired by popular local youth choirs and kabuki, which didn’t allow women on stage, and which he deemed “old and elitist,” he came up with the idea for an all-female theater troupe. The revue started out in 1914 with fourteen members. It quickly grew in popularity. Now, one hundred years later, 400 women make up its ranks. Before taking to the stage, members must train for two years at the highly competitive Takarazuka Music School. Every year, thousands of young Japanese women try out for the 45 available slots.

Our guide tells us that we’ll be seeing the Tsukigumi (Moon Troupe) performing today. The Takarazuka Revue is divided into five troupes including the Flower Troupe, which is considered to be a “treasure chest” of otokoyaku (women who play male roles), and which tends to put on lavish productions, often based on Western operas; Snow Troupe, which is considered to be the traditional upholder of dance and opera for the entire company and has the distinction of being the first to perform “Elizabeth” in Japan; Cosmos Troupe, the newest and the most experimental; and the Star Troupe, which tends to be the home of the revue’s biggest stars. The Moon Troupe is known for its young performers and strong singers. While “The Rose of Versailles” is based on a historical manga written in Japanese, this troupe is more likely than the others to present Western dramas and modern settings. The company as a whole has covered everything from “The Great Gatsby” to “Ocean’s 11” to “JFK” to “Farewell, My Concubine.”

As the bus cruises through the city of Naruto, along the inland sea scattered with deserted islands, fishing boats and tankers, our tour guide rattles off the names of some of the top performers, some of whom I gather we will be seeing today. She tells us about a junior high school student who’d been on a tour bus to Takarazuka such as this one, and who’d been inspired to pursue a career as a Takarakuza performer. Now she is a member of the company, and the star performer in her troupe.

“Perhaps someone on this bus will be inspired as well,” she says.

We pass the Otsuka Museum of Art and begin to cross the Great Naruto Bridge, over the whirlpools that swirl in the straits. Off in the distance, we can see Shodoshima, an island noted for its olive grove. And on a clear day, the tour guide tells us, it’s even possible to see Osaka Castle from the bridge.

The bus makes a brief stop on Awaji Island. The guide suggests the onion cakes sold in the gift shop as a possible souvenir for the folks back home. Claire and I opt for donuts and coffee for ourselves, and get back on the bus.

Aside from onions, Awaji Island is known as the epicenter of the earthquake that devastated Kobe eighteen years ago. The anniversary of the quake was only three days ago. According to our guide, the Japanese flag that flies at the rest area was lowered to half-mast on that day. The 6,000 people who perished are also commemorated by 6,000 white lights illuminated on the bridge that crosses from Awaji Island to Kobe, on the island of Honshu.

We arrive at the theater two hours before show time. The guide distributes our tickets, and then we are free to wander. Claire, our daughters and I, head over to some boutiques nearby. There are hardly any men in our midst, and most of the shops are designed to appeal to the overwhelmingly female visitors. There’s a pedestrian bridge painted lavishly with flowers, an eyelash salon, and a “fairy” jewelry shop. We come across a Mouth of Truth, copied from the movie Roman Holiday, and an ice cream parlor.

Next, we go across the street to a larger shopping center. The first thing we see is a poster advertising Mr. Donut, featuring the transvestite essayist, Masako, who is a constant guest on the evening TV variety shows. Somehow, a cross-dresser promoting sweets seems especially suited to Takarazuka.

We stumble upon a bookstore that has a full display of Takarazuka Revue-related publications, including a ‘zine put out by the prestigious Waseda University, which is now in its 84th edition. I pick up a copy of the first volume of Versailles Kids for Lilia, and we head back to the theater.

As soon as the guide sees us standing in line with Lilia in her wheelchair, she directs us to follow her. We get to go into the theater before anyone else, bypassing the hordes. “How kind,” someone says. “An escort!” Even Claire’s daughter is impressed by the VIP treatment. Lilia seems to take it as her due. It’s possibly the only good thing about being unable to walk.

We pass through the carpeted lobby, still empty, and take an elevator. Once inside the theater, we settle into our plush red seats and wait for the show to begin.

To pass the time, Claire shows Lilia photos on her cell phone. There she is with her daughter in Poland, visiting a friend. There’s her daughter in Canada, building a snowman, and there she is at ballet practice, in her little tutu.

Lilia smiles her brave little smile, the one she produces when she sees figure skaters or gymnasts on TV, the one that means, “That’s great, but I can’t dance because I am disabled.”

I roll my eyes. “I can’t do that either,” I tell her. “There are lots of things I can’t do. And lots of things that you can do!”

I want to remind her that her father can’t go on an amusement park ride without getting sick, but she can! She can draw better than I can, too. And her kanji are much neater and more legible than mine. And I’m sure that she has many more talents that we have yet to discover.

She nods thoughtfully, and turns her attention to the next photo: Claire in a suit for her daughter’s kindergarten graduation ceremony.

Finally, the lights go down, the curtain goes up, and we are bombarded with pink and sparkles. Although Riyoko Ikeda’s story starts with the birth of Oscar, the production opens with singing and dancing. Lady Oscar appears, her long blonde hair flowing over the epaulettes of her white military uniform. And then there’s the dark-haired Andre, in a blue jacket and black boots. The principle performers each belt out a song. Women in ball gowns and “men” in white powdered wigs parade across the stage.

Lilia is captivated by the dancing and the fencing scenes, but later, during the long soliloquies, she doesn’t understand what’s going on. I was so focused on insuring that we had accessible seating that I forgot to ask about assistance for hearing impaired audience members. At the very least, I should have brought along the libretto, or even the manga. Clearly Lilia hasn’t read the entire story as she claimed. She looks to me for interpretation, but I don’t understand it perfectly, either. The language is not colloquial Japanese. These are aristocrats, speaking keigo, an aristocratic form of Japanese. I look over at Claire, who, after all, makes a living as a simultaneous interpreter, but her chin is on her chest. She has fallen asleep.

I decide to give it my best shot. “The women traded their husband’s swords for money to buy bread,” I sign to Lilia. “Lady Oscar didn’t know they were so poor. Now she feels that she was wrong to protect the queen. She wants to help the ordinary people!”

I’m not sure how much Lilia knows already about the French Revolution, but she seems satisfied by my simple explanation.

“Her father wants her to get married now,” I sign. “But she loves Andre.”

Lilia understands this part. And she gets why Andre grips the banister in a later scene as he slowly descends a staircase. “He’s blind!” she signs. So she must have skipped ahead and read that part. I’m impressed by her comprehension.

The love story is easy to follow, and Lilia gets swept up in the emotions of the final scenes. I see her wiping her eyes under her glasses as the story reaches its tragic conclusion. And then the star-crossed lovers climb into a horse-drawn chariot bound for heaven, which rises spectacularly into the air over the audience – a happy ending after all.

But there’s more! The play is followed by a series of songs and dances – a sexy rumba, a Lido-inspired cancan, and a Takarazuka version of that famous Marilyn Monroe-on-the-stairs-surrounded-by-men-in-tails-and-top-hats scene in How to Marry a Millionaire. This time, a performer in slicked back hair and a tux comes down the staircase while a bevy of women in full-skirted dresses bow down to “him.” I notice that many routines showcase the otokoyaku – the actresses playing male parts.

The biggest stars are the ones with stage names like Tom, Leon, Kazuya – the actresses who fill male roles. The implicit message in Takarazuka’s musicals is that girls can do anything. As Lady Oscar shows, they can fight as well as, if not better than, men. They can be palace guards or samurai or Chinese opera singers! At one point in the story, Lady Oscar appears on the stage alone, considering her future. “Thank you, Father, for raising me as a boy,” she says. “You have enabled me to have many experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” This line seems to sum up everything that the Revue is about: Opportunity. Empowerment.

On the way home, our tour guide wonders aloud if anyone on the bus was inspired by the story we’ve just seen. Perhaps, she muses, someone among us will go on to be a singer or a set designer or a dancer. It’s a little too early to tell what effect this musical had on my daughter. On the bus, while doing her homework, she writes that she was “a little moved” by the story, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that. For me, the fact that we managed a trip on our own (albeit via bus tour) gives me confidence to travel farther afield with my daughter.

The guide tells us that in the spring, the Takarazuka Revue will stage another story from “The Rose of Versailles,” this one centered on Marie Antoinette. I think we’re going to have to miss that one, however, because I’m planning our next big trip…to Paris. At the end of March, during spring vacation, I will take Lilia to the real Versailles, to Le Petit Trianon. I wonder if the roses will be in bloom.

suzanne kamataSuzanne Kamata’s essays have previously appeared in Brain, Child, Real Simple, and The Japan Times, among other publications. She is the author of two novels including Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible (GemmaMedia, 2013); editor of three anthologies including Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon Press, 2008); and is currently working on a mother/daughter-with-disabilities travel memoir, for which she was awarded a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation.

website: www.suzannekamata.com | twitter: @shikokusue

PHOTO: Flickr Creative Commons – LifeSupercharger

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