Friday, July 16, 2010

Dude looks like a lady. (その奴は女性のように見える。)

It's just not as catchy in Japanese, is it? I admit, my translation of "dude" may be suspect, but I challenge you to come up with a better one in thirty seconds. I know that Jim Breen offers up 伊達者 (datesha) or 伊達男 (dateotoko) as alternatives, but... really.If that doesn't sound stitlted I don't know what does.

Well, where's that amazing translation you were bragging about?

... nothing? I didn't think so. From now on, we'll keep our mouthy comments to ourselves, won't we?

(...I know that talking to yourself is a sign of insanity, but what about talking to readers who may or may not be present, and who I know for a fact won't respond?)


As you may have surmised by the title (borrowed from Aerosmith as it may be), today's post will deal with the (I think) very interesting reality of cross-dressing in Japan.

First of all, this is another instance where Japan is surprisingly tolerant, especially in comparison to the anonymous yet infinitely superior (cough) West. Though it's rather short, there's a very interesting article here on CNN, less than a year old, stating that Japan is, on the whole, quite tolerant and even accepting of transvestitism (there's even a book out to guide men on their way to looking like women).

" long as they're pretty."

Ok, ok, so that might knock back their amazing sense of tolerance just a touch, but think about it.

(There's an interesting article in Japanese here discussing the phenomenon, including the new cross-dressing maid cafes. Even if you can't read the language, simply go for the pictures. Those are all men. Yes, all men. If this is a general sample, "pretty" may not be a unreasonable bar to meet.)

Transvestitism, as we know it, can express a number of different things, from a burgeouning desire to become transsexual (that is, change physical gender) to a simple desire to wear clothing traditionally designated to the opposite gender--Eddie Izzard, quirky hilarious comedian extraordinaire, would be an example of this. (Yes, I did just sneak Eddie Izzard into my Japan blog. Clearly, I am a master of the ways of the internet.)

Japan, however, has a very interesting history of it as almost entirely separate from sexuality, all starting with "hey, don't put women in the theatre, they're far too arousing!"

Yes, that's why there are no women in kabuki. Sort of ironic, considering... but I'll get to that.

It was something of a flip, really, as " kabuki's nascent period, women were the only performers in the plays. Soon women began attracting the wrong types of audiences and gaining too much attention from men. This type of attention raised some eyebrows and officials felt as if women were degrading the art of kabuki."

By wrong types of audiences, of course, we mean the kind that like to pay for sex. Anyway, as the government banned women from performing in the theatre in 1629 (thank you for the refresher and the quote, Wikipedia) men had to take on their roles, because it would just be silly to write plays about men and men alone. No one wants that sort of sexist entertainment!

... ha, ha, I made a funny.

Anyway, I'll let Wikipedia tell you why banning women from the theatre was something of a moot point, if they were going for wholesome family values:

The modern all-male kabuki, known as yarō kabuki (young man kabuki), was established during this period. After women were banned from performing, cross-dressed male actors, known as onnagata ("female-role") or oyama, took over. Young (adolescent) men were preferred for women's roles due to their less masculine appearance and higher pitched voices compared to adult men. In addition, wakashu (adolescent male) roles, played by young men often selected for attractiveness, became common, and were often presented in an erotic context.[6] Along with the change in the performer's gender came a change in the emphasis of the performance: increased stress was placed on drama rather than dance. Their performances were equally ribald, however, and the male actors too were available for prostitution (to both female and male customers). Audiences frequently became rowdy, and brawls occasionally broke out, sometimes over the favors of a particularly handsome young actor, leading the shogunate to ban first onnagata and then wakashu roles. Both bans were rescinded by 1652. 
Have I ever mentioned that the Tokugawa populous wasn't all that picky about sexuality? Men were rather expected to be bisexual, and didn't even bother with classifying things the way we do now. Sometimes you liked to sleep with boys, and sometimes with girls, and no one really raised a fuss. Women did not, as far as I know, have similar liberties in choosing their bed-mates, as a whole, though there are a number of erotic prints depicting female-female sexuality out there. And hey, everyone was allowed to buy prostitutes!

... wow. I think I was originally supposed to be talking about modern cross-dressers, wasn't I?  This is what happens when you let a Tokugawa-buff start rambling, kids, remember that....

Anyway. It has often been hypothesized that, because of this long and strong history of men dressing as women for public enjoyment, Japan doesn't seem to have much of an issue with gender-bending apparel in the current day. I agree with this sentiment entirely, and feel that it is helped along by the fact that kabuki is still going strong, as are 女形 (onnagata) and their popularity. Do a Youtube search if you don't believe me:

This kid (早乙女太一) is one of the most popular currently; I discovered him while doing research for my own 女形 project while studying abroad, and man is he gorgeous. Also ridiculously young, but hey. There are a bunch of people out there making my youth feel squandered; at least he's pretty.

On sort of the flip side of kabuki is 宝塚歌劇団 (Takarazuka Kagekidan, Takarazuka Review):
The Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団 Takarazuka Kagekidan) is a Japanese all-female musical theater troupe based in Takarazuka, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. Women play all roles in lavish, Broadway-style productions of Western-style musicals, and sometimes stories adapted from shōjo manga and Japanese folktales. The troupe takes its name from the Hankyu Takarazuka rail line in suburban Osaka.
As opposed to men being pretty, these are women being manly--or pretty, if they're playing the female roles. However, they are not being traditionally manly, but more of a stylized version of it. Nevertheless, a number of the 男役 (otokoyaku, male players) make many women in my acquaintance (and myself, come to think of it) feel a little weak in the knees:

Er. Yes. Don't ask me to interpret, because Takarazuka is notoriously difficult to understand for us foreign types, especially when we don't understand the story going in. There were ads up for this one all over during the first part of my study abroad in Kyoto, though, and it looked dreadfully cool. I think that it was based on a Chinese myth/legend, though I could be way off base.

Again, these women are extremely popular, and tickets for their shows are horribly expensive--so much so that I never was able to go see one. Training to enter the troupe is also ridiculously difficult and extensive, and often women are selected very young.

What I'm trying to say, with all my long-winded off-topic rambling, is that cross-dressing is a fact of life in Japan, with deep roots in their cultural history and a long-held respect as a high form of art.

Therefore, it is no wonder that cross-dressing occurs so frequently in modern popular media with no detriment to the participants, particularly on variety shows. And in that case, it really doesn't matter whether or not they're pretty, so long as they're entertaining.

(Though I suppose it would be even more crass to demand that lifestyle transvestites were entertaining instead of pretty, wouldn't it.)

Here, the above-mentioned 女形 (told you he was popular) teaches Kimutaku and Sanma (coincidentally one of Melon's favorite talents) his art on their little variety segment, which is always full of hilarity. Notice how bloody elegant Kimutaku is. Truly, he has been elevated from "perfect man" to "perfect human being."

...It's always dangerous to bring up Kimutaku on this blog, have you noticed?

But I did say hilarity. Traditional Japanese theatre, while elegant and refined, does not hilarity make.

This does.

Yes. They're trying to re-create a Beyonce video. Replacing her first with Sanma, then Kimutaku when he can't take Sanma's fail-tastic performance anymore. (Most of the hilarity in the first bit comes from Sanma's laughable attempts to look like Beyonce; Kimutaku, tasteful and gorgeous pop-idol that he is, is definitely not impressed.)

Hilarious? Yes. Shocking, when we look at Kimutaku's legs? God yes.

Embarrassing, for either of these men? Nary a bit. Kimutaku is married with two children, and can still do this sort of thing without any fear. I mean, after all, he takes over because he can do it right, not just because it's his turn.

And I rightly think that that is pretty awesome.

Also, pay attention around the five minute mark: the male staff members begin leering at Kimutaku, and he rightly protests, saying that he--note the sudden switch to the super-masculine pronoun, "ore"--now understands what women feel in this situation. Sanma, though finding the situation quite hilarious, does feel obliged to remind them that Kimutaku's a "32-year-old, middle-aged guy" (at the time of this shooting anyway), though no one seems very bothered by such trivialities. That, my friends, is a surprising lack of concern about gender, sexuality, and masculinity. Color me intrigued... though admittedly not by the best of circumstances, ah ha.

Show me something comparable from America. Yes, I do have to single us out now, because Britain seems to have gotten over this hurdle, at least when it comes to comedy and dealing with a dearth of double X chromosomes:

Yes, that's right, Eddie Izzard and Monty Python in my Japan blog. Feel free to bow down before my amazing tangential and referential mastery.

And, when you do find me that example in American media, remember: it must not be a source of embarrassment for the cross-dresser at hand. It can be meant to be humorous, but the person in question cannot feel ashamed, uncomfortable, or generally put-upon in his or her gender-atypical clothing.

Also, it cannot be a teeny-bopper movie that slurs the name of Shakespeare.

Go on. I'm actually quite eager to see what people find; I'm very willing to admit defeat and gracious accept America as truly and totally tolerant and accepting of transvestites and cross-dressing, especially in the media.

...but what with this lot's tendency of silence, I doubt I'll be corrected today.

Oh well.

This is Edo, signing off thinking that she probably should avoid trying to write editorial pieces in the future.

PS- A little blog note, for those of you who have noticed--I finally figured out how to re-size videos to suit my rather narrow format. I do hope you enjoy it, and aren't instead repulsed by the strange new dimensions given to videos you may know and love.

I also have that nifty flag counter over there now... because I admit that I am very much interested in whether or not this thing is actually reaching anyone or not. Hopefully it doesn't jar the eye too much.


Melon said...

I watched Dream Girls (, a documentary on the Takarazuka music school, for class once. Very interesting. And frustrating, because it all seemed pretty empowering until you get to the scene where one of the dad's says that because his daughter was otokoyaku she understands how hard it is to be a man and therefore will be a better wife. (:-/) But with more actresses continuing on with their careers beyond Takarazuka, maybe that way of thinking isn't as prevalent. Also, if they do Rose of Versailles any time in the near future, you and coming with me. Watched it on DVD, it was awesome. I can hardly imagine how great it must be in person.

Anyway. I can't think of any American examples that parallel... Mrs Doubtfire? Eddie Murphy in Norbit as that very large woman? I think there are comedic examples like this, but I don't know of any examples in which the goal is to create an attractive woman. American audiences can be amused that these character look like women, but don't have to experience any discomfort caused by being attracted to them. Perhaps?

Enjoyed this post! :)

Edo said...

Yikes; way to ruin it, otou-san. :/ Yea, I really hope that that's simply one man's opinion that happened to be employed for the shock (?) value, because based on those random interviews I've seen of the otokoyaku ladies, they seem to be pretty independent people. I hope that isn't all just a show. Ha ha, I did see some of those on Youtube; we will definitely hit that up. But man, I thought Takarazuka was far away before...

Ah, I forgot about Mrs. Doubtfire. That might be a valid example, though you're right; there does seem to be a big deal made about "don't be attracted to them, no matter what." Definitely no pretty boys paraded around in ladies' clothing, to my knowledge.

Yay! I wondered if I had gone a bit off the deep end; I'm glad you liked it. :D

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Edo said...