From traditional all-male performance arts like Kabuki to the century-old all-female Takarazuka musicals, Japan is well-known for cross-gender performances. Actors often specialize in specific gender roles. They train rigorously for years, carefully replicating the traditional movements and mannerisms of those characters on stage. To give the highest quality performances, actors must strictly adhere to standard techniques, leaving little room for individual variation and innovation. Though this is the traditional model for cross-gender acting, it is not the only way.
Founded in 1985, Studio Life is a humble all-male theater group of approximately forty members. Based in Tokyo, the troupe regularly performs in small, intimate theaters for a largely female audience. Director, co-founder, and playwright Jun Kurata is the only female member and the genius behind the Studio Life style of cross-gender performance. Unlike the fossilized depictions of femininity found in Kabuki theater, the actors of Studio Life do not try to mimic female voices and mannerisms as a rule. According to the troupe’s English website, their ultimate goal in playing female roles is to depict “female psychology” rather than to imitate femaleness.
As of writing this article, I have seen two Studio Life productions: Heart of Thomas (トーマの心臓 an original play based on the classic boys’ love manga of the same name) and Blood Relations ( 血のつながり a Japanese translation of Sharon Pollock’s feminist imagining of the Lizzie Borden double axe-murder case). Heart of Thomas is arguably Studio Life’s signature production. The play launched their first tour of Japan in 1996 and has been revived a number of times since. Set in a German boarding school for boys, the story explores adolescent crushes and bullying as well as adult themes including suicide and abuse – physical, emotional, and sexual. While Takarazuka performers traditionally fake kisses and minimize other suggestions of sexuality between the female performers on stage, Studio Life actors embrace homosexual content. In Heart of Thomas affectionate kisses and passionate embraces are acted out tastefully on stage by adult men nearly ten to thirty years older than their respective adolescent characters.
Why not use teenage or young adult actors? Mature subject matter aside, the adult actor’s physique may seem like a distraction from the performance; however, a character’s youth can be portrayed in other ways. Child actors play children by simply being children and the audience readily accepts their characters as children, even if they sound unnaturally articulate or precocious for their age. While a child actor is unaware of his own emotional immaturity, an adult performer can deliver a more nuanced portrayal of adolescent psychology by keeping in mind these cognitive differences. In this way, a character’s youth is conveyed not just through mannerisms and child-like horseplay but also through emotional delivery of dialogue. The selfish and naive aspects of the characters take shape in a unique way that can come only from an adult’s reflection on youth long gone.
With such careful attention paid to the emotions of the young boys, masculinity takes a different form for each character. While the male characters are diverse in terms of personality and gender presentation, there are few female characters in Heart of Thomas. Those that do make appearances have very small roles as family members with only a handful of lines. In particular, an emotionally abusive grandmother was so poorly developed and one-dimensional that the actor’s maleness seemed to magnify the latent misogyny in the original male-centric manga. This was by no means the fault of the actor or director. After all, the same criticism is often made of the boys’ love genre for the absence of dynamic, three-dimensional female characters and the unrealistic, often heteronormative portrayals of gay male sexuality.
For a more accurate representation of Studio Life’s cross-gender performance style, I went to see Blood Relations. The lead roles are Lizzie and her suspected lesbian lover “the Actress.” As Lizzie tells her story to her friend, the pair act out the events for the audience revealing what truly happened on that infamous day.
Five of the eight roles in Blood Relations are female characters. When portraying these characters, the actors use feminine style Japanese, but they do not speak in falsetto. Instead they speak comfortably using their natural voices whether high or low. They wear feminine costumes with wigs and minimal makeup. While some actors may look lovely as women, they seem to be cast with little regard towards physical appearances. Tall men with sharp features and deep, booming voices are just as likely to play female roles as young, pretty boy actors. Physical beauty is remarkably unimportant. Essentially any actor can play a female role at any time.
As humorous as it may seem to imagine an obviously masculine man playing a female role, the effect is quite dramatic on stage. The actor’s overtly masculine voice and appearance conflict with the audience’s expectations of femininity, calling attention to the fictitious nature of the drama. The theatrical world is a world of art and art does not need to perfectly reflect things the way they are. If the actor says he is a woman, he is a woman within the realm of the story. Just as if he said he were a wizard, he would be a wizard on stage. Once the audience accepts the actor as completely different from his character on stage, his maleness will fade into the background and the female character will triumphantly emerge.
Feminine mannerisms and physical attributes set aside, the actor focuses his energy entirely on bringing the character’s intricate psychology to life. The character’s emotions, experiences, and motivations take center-stage. The costumes are a mere backdrop. As leading roles, female characters are expected to be beautiful, perpetuating the myth that only beautiful people have interesting and worthwhile stories to tell. Men portraying women on stage and having the audacity to look plain and ordinary subverts this concept. Whether pretty or plain, the actors effectively create fully-developed, believable female characters proving that how they act is much more important than how they look.
Unlike more traditional Japanese theatrical arts, Studio Life’s cross-gender acting has a clearly feminist vision. The all-male performances provide a refreshingly modern take on gender. Instead of splitting the troupe into types, any actor can play a female role regardless of his appearance and physical traits. His acting ability is all that matters. With physical sex differences minimized and casting choices based on skill rather than appearances, Studio Life productions portray male and female characters as more similar than different, fostering body positivity and acceptance of non-binary gender presentation as well as queer identity.