DREAM GIRLS (Kim Longinotto, 1994)
-Mocha J Herrup, PhD
Image from Takarazuka Revue, circa 2014
Blending documentary’s observationist traditions with “feminist empathetic ethnography,” Kim Longinotto has been making entertaining, intriguing, and complexly open ended films for over thirty years. DREAM GIRLS, about the peculiarity of a highly disciplined, military-like academy that trains young Japanese women to perform flamboyant gender bending roles AND to be good wives and mothers, is peak Longinotto – fascinating subject matter, subtle commentary, layered reality.
Founded in 1913 by railroad tycoon Kobayashi Ichizo, the all female Takara-zuka Revue remains a hugely popular form of mass entertainment in modern Japan, with over 4 companies of Takarasiennes that peform for mostly female adoring fans. Like the famed K-pop bands of Korea, the Takarazuka Academy is a highly competitive boarding school-like institution where training is 24/7. Most Takarazuka alumnae begin their training as teenagers and leave at 25, which can be a traumatic adjustment for many of the performers whose lives have been very different than what is expected from them in “typical” Japanese society with its rigid male-female gender roles.
“The kind of film I don’t want to see is where I settle down and someone tells me something, lectures at me,” Longinotto told a 2010 Hot Docs audience at a retrospective of her work. Loginotto’s works can beguile. Are the “otokoyaku” (male-role specialists) actually gay or trans? Does the preponderance of female fans who flock to performances to see these “gentle men” a statement about society’s toxic masculinity? Is the Takarazuka phenomenon subversive, or just another kind of licensed transgression that ultimately reinforces normative gender roles?
DREAM GIRLS is ambiguous and does not shy away from contradiction. Reality is complicated. Without judgment or overarching statement, Longinotto bears witness to the dream.